A pitch before he drove the ball over the center fielder’s head, Anthony Rendon pulled the ball down the left field line, a shot. His body language was obvious: Pull it back. Keep it fair. The collective body language of the crowd, at that moment and for all the remaining points over the rest of the summer, should have been directed at Rendon: Pull him back. Keep him here.
That the Washington Nationals have finally registered a three-game winning streak — 53 games into the season — will be remembered as significant or completely lost by, say, the all-star break. Either way, come mid-July, Rendon should be headed to Cleveland to play for the National League, an honor he has never received.
Big deal, right? Nope. Cue the eye rolls.
“Sure, I’d love to be an all-star — without going,” he said. “If that’s possible.”
It’s not. Enjoy Cleveland.
By this point in his career here, we know Rendon prefers rest and relaxation over attention and accolades. Quibble about that all you want. What’s undeniable is that he has developed into one of the best players in the NL, and his importance to both the Nationals’ present and future might exceed that of anyone else. Juan Soto and Victor Robles have upside. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg have pedigree. But Rendon is the Nats’ best player, and his free agency is only months away.
“He’s ready to get called up to the next league,” Nats closer Sean Doolittle said, “whatever that is.”
Sunday’s closer-than-it-had-to-be 9-6 victory over the God-awful Miami Marlins was just the kind of performance that has allowed Rendon to settle into the little comfort zone he has here, where no one makes a big deal about much of anything he does. Howie Kendrick homered and had three hits. Erick Fedde threw five scoreless innings. The bullpen flirted with unspeakable disaster. Rendon was merely 2 for 4 with a two-run triple, a walk and two runs — well down the list of talking points, which is right where he prefers to be.
But internally and externally, both in the Washington front office and in those around baseball, Rendon’s role here is completely understood. To a degree, the Nats’ 2018 season was hijacked by the impending free agency of Bryce Harper. This summer shouldn’t be derailed by stalled negotiations and the inevitable should-we-trade-him angst that would have to follow. What a jolt it would be, whether the Nats are in first or last, to convene a news conference announcing a new deal for their homegrown third baseman.
Think about what they have here.
“He’s just a nightmare for anybody,” Nats reliever Kyle Barraclough said.
Barraclough used to be a Marlin, and he’s right-handed, so he drew Rendon in the late innings nine times in his career. He was successful — just one hit and two walks allowed. Yet when he speaks of the matchups, he almost seems scarred. Last year, MLB Network asked Barraclough who was the toughest hitter he had to face. His quick response, which he knew would be received with surprise: “Honestly, Anthony Rendon.”
The “whys” on that assessment could go on for an hour.
“His feel for the strike zone, I’d put it between him and maybe one other guy,” Barraclough said. “It’s just incredible, his ability to lay off pitches that are nibbling the zone. Trying to get him to swing at bad pitches doesn’t work. So you kind of just have to beat him at the game of chess.
“But then, his bat-to-ball ability is incredible. . . . I was just talking about this with a friend that’s in the minor leagues: I don’t necessarily know that this is his approach, but it appears that he’s perfectly comfortable being down 0-1, 0-2. He never looks like he’s out of an at-bat. He always seems comfortable. You could throw one up at his face, and he’ll get back in there. You could throw one right at him, or throw a front-door breaking ball, or throw one on the inside corner, and he’s perfectly fine with pulling his hands in and ripping it.”
That enough? Rendon’s Sunday performance makes him 18 for 48 (.375) over his past 13 games, with 11 of those hits for extra bases. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage is up to 1.101, fourth in all of baseball, trailing only Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers, Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich and Pittsburgh’s Josh Bell. And Barraclough’s right about maintaining his comfort, regardless of the count: After he’s down 0-1, his OPS is still 1.036.
“He’s the guy that, when he’s not in our lineup, you miss a lot,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “A lot. Not just hitting-wise, but defensively. He’s the one that keeps everything rolling for us.”
Figuring out parameters for a contract could be dicey given the shadow cast by Nolan Arenado’s eight-year, $260 million deal with Colorado. But might something like the five-year, $151 million extension Houston gave heart-and-soul second baseman Jose Altuve last year be in the neighborhood of something that could work? You could argue that Rendon is more central to the Nats’ fortunes going forward that even Altuve was to the Astros’, given Houston’s other stars.
Whatever the final details, talking now is paramount, because keeping Rendon a secret — whether he wants to be an all-star or not — isn’t going to be possible going forward.
“He never seems to get beat by the same pitch twice,” Barraclough said.
In the top of the eighth Sunday, with the game already decided, Miami’s Brian Anderson ripped a ball down the third base line. There was Rendon, diving to his right, parallel to the ground before he thudded into it, turning what would have been a double into an out. His response when he got back to the dugout: “That hurt.” His reaction after the game: “I’ll live.”
The fans’ response was an earnest chant: “Lock him up! Lock him up!”
It wasn’t that loud, which fits how Rendon prefers reactions to his performances. Get up, dust yourself off, hit the shower, head home. But whether this summer is ever revived for his team, the issue of Anthony Rendon’s future can’t be avoided. It is a story that will affect the Nationals’ future. And if it’s not taken care of, it’s a story that will affect the offseason to come — for all of baseball.