- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2014

NEW YORK — If there is any player on the Nationals’ roster poised for a breakthrough season, it is second baseman Anthony Rendon.

The sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft — and only that low because injury concerns caused other teams to pass on an elite college bat — Rendon is more comfortable at second base now and has last season’s 394 plate appearances to draw upon, too.

That showed on Opening Day at Citi Field against the New York Mets on Monday. Rendon drove home a tying run in the bottom of the seventh inning and his three-run home run in the 10th inning put the game out of reach in a wild 9-7 Washington victory.

Rendon finished with a career-high four RBI. His home run proved vital when the Mets scored two runs off Nats reliever Jerry Blevins in the bottom of the 10th inning before their rally fell short. Washington rallied from deficits of 4-2 and 5-4, but never actually held a lead until the 10th inning.

“It’s always good to get off on the right foot,” Rendon said. “But I also have to put it behind me now and look forward to [Wednesday].”

But Rendon had already contributed even before his homer. New York starting pitcher Dillon Gee has owned Washington in recent years with a 7-3 record and 3.04 ERA in 12 games entering the day.

SEE ALSO: HARRIS: On Opening Day full of storylines, Danny Espinosa makes quiet impact

On Monday, he continued his mastery of them. Gee allowed a two-run homer to Adam LaRoche in the second inning and then promptly retired the next 15 batters he faced before Bryce Harper reached on an infield single in the seventh inning.

Unfortunately for Gee, that ignited a Washington rally. LaRoche drew a two-out walk and then Rendon ripped a double down the right field line to cut the lead to 4-3.

“[Rendon] just makes our lineup more potent, deeper,” center fielder Denard Span said. “You have an eight-hole hitter driving in runs and doing what he did today, then it’s going to be a long season for a lot of other teams. … Certain guys just have it, and he has it.”

A pair of Mets relievers then drew the ire of a sellout crowd by walking the next two batters on eight pitches. Pinch-hitter Nate McLouth drew the first one from Carlos Torres and Span earned the second from Scott Rice to bring home the tying run.

But the Nats’ bullpen gave it right back in the bottom of the eighth when a 0-2 pitch from reliever Tyler Clippard screamed over the wall in left off the bat of Juan Lagares. That put New York back up 5-4.

In the bottom of the ninth, Ian Desmond led off with a single off Mets closer Bobby Parnell. LaRoche popped out to short and Rendon struck out swinging, but Danny Espinosa, once the organization’s starting second baseman and now a reserve, drew a tough walk during a eight-pitch at-bat. That set up Span’s game-tying single to left as the frustrated crowd groaned.

Leadoff singles from Jayson Werth and Jose Lobaton, playing for an injured Wilson Ramos, in the 10th started the late rally. A passed ball led to Desmond’s go-ahead sacrifice fly. Two batters later Rendon put the game away with his home run.

It was not necessarily the start that Nats ace Stephen Strasburg envisioned after a strong spring training. A three-run home run by New York outfielder Andrew Brown in the first inning and a sacrifice fly in the second put Washington in a 4-2 hole early.

“I said the heck with it and said I was going to throw everything I’ve got,” Strasburg said after leaving a few too many fastballs up in the zone early.

And so Strasburg settled down and retired 13 of the final 15 batters he faced before departing after the sixth inning with 102 pitchers. That was about as far as manager Matt Williams wanted to go with him in his first start on a windy day in New York with temperatures in the 40s. But his ace kept the game close enough to let the offense chip away at Gee and then the New York bullpen.

“He found his stride in the third and then shut them down the rest of the way,” Williams said. “Brown hit a fastball and got him and that happens. The good thing about [Strasburg] today was that he settled in and gave us a chance to get back in the game. That’s what kind of pitcher he is.”

• Brian McNally can be reached at bmcnally@washingtontimes.com.

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