Given his lack of production — shoot, given his lack of games on the active roster — this season, it’s been easy to forget about Anthony Rendon and how good he was for the Nationals last year and how good he still can be for them the rest of this year.
The young man who finished fifth in NL MVP voting last fall has played in only 42 games this season, derailed by three separate injuries. And when he has played, he rarely has resembled the guy who impressed so many in 2014, entering Saturday night’s game against the Brewers sporting a .240 batting average, one homer and seven RBI for the year.
Through it all, Rendon has tried to maintain his trademark even keel, while teammates maintained confidence in his ability to flip the switch at some point.
“I mean, he’s Tony Rendon,” left fielder Jayson Werth said. “He’s one of the guys. Everybody believes in him. We know the type of player he is. He showed it last year. It’s just a matter of time before he breaks out.”
That breakout, at least for one game, came Saturday during the Nationals’ 6-1 victory. Rendon stepped to the plate four times and reached base four times. He homered. He doubled. He drove in two runs. He walked twice. He stole a base. He even made the defensive play of the night, diving to his left to snag Jean Segura’s line drive with two outs in the ninth to cap the Nats’ much-needed win.
All this after a brutal 23-game stretch for Rendon, who since returning from his latest injury (a strained quadriceps muscle) was hitting .200 with a .274 on-base percentage, .271 slugging percentage, one homer and two RBI.
This performance may have felt like a surprise to the outside observer, but those around Rendon every day have been expecting something like this.
“He hasn’t had that crispness to his swing as of yet,” manager Matt Williams said about 2 1/2 hours before first pitch. “That can all start tonight. We hope it does.”
It did, in a big way. And the key to it all happening, as far as Rendon was concerned?
“I didn’t change a thing,” he said. “That’s the funny part.”
Players in slumps tinker with their swings all the time. They adjust their stance. They hold their bat in a different position. They alter their leg kick. Anything to get themselves back on track.
Rendon, though, fought the urge to do that and stuck with what has always worked for him. And for the first time in a long time, the results finally matched the process.
“Of course whenever you’re not doing your best at something, you want to look for a way out,” he said. “But you’ve got to stay patient.”
Patience was the key to Rendon’s first two plate appearances Saturday night, each resulting in a walk drawn against Brewers rookie right-hander Taylor Jungmann. Once he finally got a good pitch to hit in the bottom of the fourth, Rendon didn’t squander the opportunity. He laced a double down the left-field line, bringing Michael Taylor home and nearly bringing Werth all the way home from first base (he was narrowly tagged out to end the inning).
Players often say it can take as many as 100 major-league at-bats to feel normal coming out of spring training or coming off the DL. Rendon now has 99 plate appearances since returning from his most recent injury. Perhaps he’s just now feeling comfortable and Saturday night’s performance was just the beginning for one of the Nationals’ most important players.
“It’s tough when you’re out and then you get a short rehab assignment and then you basically go through spring training up here,” Werth said. “I’ve done it twice now this season. It’s not surprising. Very few times you see guys with very little at-bats produce. It’s just tough.”
“I think it’s important to remember his season’s been a little different this year,” Taylor added. “He missed spring training and has kind of gone back and forth. It’s tough, but I think he’s going to get rolling here pretty soon.”