Amidst all the gloom of the Nats’ underwhelming 48-47 record at the All-Star break given their major league-best 98-64 record in 2012 and their status as World Series favorites back in April, there has been one very positive development this season. That’s the baby-faced guy who has seemingly permanently supplanted Danny Espinosa at second base. And yet Anthony Rendon is as unheralded as a player who was drafted sixth overall can be.
Rendon had the misfortune to be the Nats’ first-round pick in 2011, the draft immediately after they had selected famed amateurs Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper first overall in consecutive years. But considering Rendon’s apparent lack of need for publicity, maybe that should be rephrased as his good fortune.
While the hard-throwing Strasburg and the slugging Harper have performed in the national spotlight since before they reached the majors, Rendon has been able to go about his business with very little attention. And the Rice product has done his business very well, thank you very much, especially in the 35 games since he was summoned back from Class AA when Espinosa went on the disabled list on June 4.
Let’s compare Rendon’s performance in those 35 games as a regular to the first such stretch for Harper and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whom Washington chose fourth overall in the 2005 draft.
Zimmerman was called up from the minors when rosters were expanded at the start of September 2005, but the first 35 games of 2006 are a better indication of his early prowess. The 21-year-old third baseman hit .246 with four home runs, seven doubles and 18 RBI while scoring 18 runs. Good power numbers but a poor batting average.
Harper, who was raised as a catcher but was Washington’s center fielder at age 19, batted .276 in his first 35 games after being recalled from Class AAA Syracuse last April 28. Harper added a homer, six doubles and 14 RBI while scoring 23 runs en route to winning National League Rookie of the Year honors in one of the best seasons ever put together by a teenager.
Rendon, who’s significantly older than his more hyped predecessors at 23, followed Harper in making a position change. A third baseman by trade, he has made five errors, not an embarrassing number for a player who had just begun learning how to play second base when he was elevated from Harrisburg. Last Friday night, Rendon showed off his improving glove work, making a gorgeous diving grab of a liner by Miami’s Adeiny Hechavarria that seemed to be a sure hit.
During his 35 games as as second baseman, Rendon is hitting .312 with four homers, 12 doubles and 13 RBI while scoring 20 runs. All told, the native Texan is batting a team-leading .301 with those four homers, 14 doubles (fourth on the Nats), 14 RBI and 22 runs.
Rendon’s 14th double tied yesterday’s game in the seventh inning, helping keep Washington above.500 and slicing Atlanta’s lead in the National League East to six games.
The fourth of his round-trippers came last Wednesday in Philadelphia after he had fallen behind former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee 0-2 in the count. After the blast, Nats manager Davey Johnson raved about Rendon’s quick wrists and his instincts in knowing that Lee was probably going to attack him inside. Rendon modestly denied that he figured what was coming from the veteran All-Star lefthander.
“I just try to get the barrel [of the bat] to it,” Rendon said. “Don’t think in baseball. It messes you up.”
Sounds like Crash Davis advising Nuke LaLoosh in “Bull Durham.” In any case, while everyone in the Nats’ organization from owner Ted Lerner, through the retiring “World Series or Bust” Johnson and on down to the batboys has every reason to be messed up about how this season went for the first three and a half months, Rendon’s emergence as a almost-certain fixture at second base for years to come has to be more than some small solace.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin