When the Washington Nationals called Anthony Rendon up from the minor leagues for the second time this season, they trusted that despite minimal experience at second base, their top prospect would have little problem handling the everyday duties. A week later, desperate for an offensive spark and anyone who could get on base, they trusted that he could handle hitting in the No. 2 spot in their order.
They placed all of that responsibility on Rendon’s 22-year-old shoulders because they felt his talent would allow him to handle it. After the Nationals’ 3-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday night, Rendon is hitting .354 on the season and .392 since being recalled on June 5. He has the highest on-base percentage on the team.
“He’s swung the bat like a veteran,” manager Davey Johnson said after Rendon and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman accounted for more than half of the Nationals’ hits on Wednesday night. “He’s hit every pitch that’s thrown up there at him. He’s got a quick bat and he’s aggressive. He hits all types of pitches. Just a good-looking young hitter.”
But perhaps it’s more than his innate ability to hit a baseball that has allowed Rendon to have so much success 26 games into his major league career.
The easy-going Texan chuckles at the suggestion that he’s doing anything remarkable. He plays without any hint of feeling the burden of expectations. And he smiles as he politely tries to explain night after night that he’s always hit, so he doesn’t see why should the major leagues be any different?
“The game hasn’t changed since I was a little kid,” Rendon said, another three-hit night on his resume. “The strike zone, the plate’s the same size. The bases probably got a little longer, but that’s pretty much it.”
On a humid night in the District, as the Nationals stepped over the .500 mark once again this season and took the series from the National League West-leading Diamondbacks, Rendon made it seem just about that simple.
Jordan Zimmermann allowed two runs in a 27-pitch first inning that was aided by some lackluster outfield defense, but the Nationals’ ace right-hander turned back into his usually-effective self for the other six.
By the time he descended the mound after the seventh inning, Zimmermann was not only in line for his National League-leading 11th victory of the season, but had allowed just two baserunners — one hit and one walk — since the first.
He averaged 12.5 pitches per inning from the second through the seventh, and he walked off the mound with another compelling line on his All-Star resume.
“Zim pitched a great game,” Johnson said. “He misses so many bats.”
Zimmermann has been one of the few benefactors of Nationals’ run support but there was no huge cushion for him to work with on this night. He could thank Rendon, and Zimmerman, for helping to ensure his gem didn’t go to waste.
“I think it’s all the haircut,” Zimmermann cracked about Rendon’s well-publicized mullet.
Rendon singled with one out in the first inning and came around to score one batter later on a double to left field by Zimmerman. He doubled in the third, though the Nationals left him there, and with the game tied at two he laced a single to right center to move Denard Span into position to score on Zimmerman’s double play moments later.
The Nationals decided to place Danny Espinosa on the disabled list and install Rendon when they did because they needed help on offense. Eighteen games in, it seems like it’s had the desired effect.
“Hitting .350 or whatever, that’s a pretty good effect,” Zimmerman said. “We all knew he could hit. For him to play second base like he has with really no experience there, obviously we needed to fill a void there and he’s done a great job. You really couldn’t ask him to do any more than he’s done.”
The Nationals are keeping their fingers crossed that by this time next week they’ll have Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos back in their lineup. That they’ll be able to finally get a better picture of the type of offensive team they can and should be.
And suddenly, Johnson could have to face the type of good problem he rarely has this season. He’ll have to figure out what to do with Rendon — keep him at the top of the lineup, where he has 19 hits in the 11 games — or return Jayson Werth to the No. 2 spot and slot Rendon down a bit lower.
“Maybe (I’ll) put him in a situation (where he can be) more run-producing,” Johnson said with a sly smile. “But I think he’s going to be comfortable wherever I put him.”
“(At the plate), that’s where I feel most comfortable,” Rendon said. “Thats the way it’s been my whole life. I like to hit.”
Rendon tossed on a backward cap and a backpack, grabbed a to-go box from the Nationals’ food room and walked out the door. He looked as carefree then as he did standing at the plate earlier in the night.
“It’s just a game,” he said with a laugh.