- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When Bryce Harper returns to the Washington Nationals lineup Monday night, he may find there is a new golden boy in town — and his name is Anthony Rendon.

Rendon has become the new darling among Nationals fans, winning them over with his slick third base glove, his clutch game-winning bat, and his generally happy demeanor — seemingly taking life as it comes.

He’s been the Nationals’ best hitter in June, batting over .300, with six home runs — two of them tying games in critical moments — and 18 RBI. Overall, in 77 games this season, Rendon is batting .282 with 12 home runs, 46 RBI and 52 runs scored.

People are noticing him — and it’s because of his play.

He’s become Chipper Jones’ new favorite National. Chipper once professed his love for Harper, but he recently declared his new love for Rendon.

Talking about Ryan Zimmerman’s move to left field, Chipper told MLB Network radio recently that, “Anthony Rendon is probably the best player on that team right now and they have to find somewhere for this kid to play because he can flat-out hit. I don’t know why he’s not hitting third right now, because he’s the best hitter they’ve got.”

He’s just been named to the Taylor Hooton Foundation Advisory Board — an organization devoted to fighting use of performance-enhancing substances in young athletes.

The general public didn’t know much about Rendon before he was drafted by Washington in 2011. He was the best hitter in college baseball as a sophomore at Rice in 2010 but suffered a shoulder injury in 2011, and as a result dropped from the expected number one pick to sixth — where the Nationals and general manager Mike Rizzo were waiting for him.

He was called up from Double-A Harrisburg twice last season, staying for good the second time, and showed enough in his rookie season — batting .265 with seven home runs and 35 RBI in 98 games — to believe he might be something special.

This year, he’s validated that belief, and has become the Nationals hot, new rising star.

Enter Bryce Harper.

We all knew about Harper long before he played a game for the Nationals. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16, and he’s demanded that we notice him ever since. His style is the polar opposite of Rendon. His presence demands that you notice him. He bangs and booms his way through every game — at least the ones that he is healthy enough to play.

In his sophomore season last year, Harper missed 44 games with injuries. He has missed 59 games this season because of a torn ligament in his left thumb that required surgery.

Well, Harper is ready to come back — and find a way to fit with the Nationals young new hotshot.

It could be a historic fit.

No one is suggesting here that Rendon is better than Harper or has a better future. Let’s not lose track of the fight that Rendon is 24. Harper is 21. When Harper was 19, he hit 26 doubles, 22 home runs, drove in 59 runs, batted .270 and scored 98 runs in 139 games, winning the National League Rookie of the Year award. Harper could be winning Most Valuable Player awards — yes, awards — by the time he is 24.

But he could learn something from Rendon — that the loudest guy on the field isn’t always the best player; that talent without the opportunity to express it winds up as an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary 10 years later.

It’s not that Harper shouldn’t be who he is. He has already announced his return to the lineup loudly Monday with three home runs and five RBI Saturday night in his rehabilitation assignment with Harrisburg. But he needs to stay healthy for the noise not to ring hollow.

This coupling — Harper and Rendon, thunder and lightning — has a chance to lay waste to the National League for years to come. But without thunder, lightning is just a light show.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com

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