With the Washington Nationals up 3-0 in the seventh, the Miami Marlins threatened after Nats' lefty Jerry Blevins gave up a leadoff walk and right-hander Drew Storen surrendered a one-out single. Veteran outfielder Reed Johnson stepped in against Storen and dropped a bunt down the third base line on a 1-1 pitch.
Normally this is where Ryan Zimmerman would swoop in, charging and barehanding the ball before slinging a sidearm/underhanded throw to Adam LaRoche at first base. With Zimmerman sitting with a sore right shoulder, however, it was 23-year-old 2011 1st Round pick Anthony Rendon at third base last night, but the Nationals didn't lose anything defensively by substituting the former Rice University third baseman in for Zimmerman.
With Zimmerman, the Nats' '05 1st Round pick, established at the hot corner, Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo fielded questions about where Rendon might play from the moment the Nats' drafted the infielder. Rendon was considered the top hitter in his draft class, but a shoulder injury in his final year at Rice scared off some suitors leaving him available when the Nats picked sixth overall.
"We think that he's athletic enough to play several different positions," Rizzo told reporters in June of 2011. "We feel that he has Gold Glove-caliber defensive skills at third base. We're going to see where and when we have to make a decision on that. What we think we have is a very polished, accomplished college hitter. The 2010 National Player of the Year and a consumate, professional hitter."
While Rendon impressed at the plate last night, going 2 for 3 with an RBI single and a two-run double in the Nats' 5-0 win, and has gotten off to a really hot start at the plate with 11 hits including three doubles and a home run in his first 27 plate appearances (.407/.407/.630), it was his defensive play in the seventh inning last night that Nationals' manager Matt Williams pointed to in his post game press conference.
"Reed Johnson is a really good player," Williams said in breaking down the play. "So he's thinking in that situation, 'If I get on here we're going to get a lefty at the plate with a chance to -- ball down the line or ball in the gap, tie the score. So, in that regard it's a smart play by him, but it was a really good defensive play by Anthony. He's accustomed to playing over there, it's not something that's foreign to him. So, it was a good play. Barehanded and strong throw to get him. Reed runs well too, so it took a good play to get him."
Having helped keep the Marlins off the board with his glove, Rendon picked up a bat and blew Tuesday's game open in his fourth at bat of the game in the eighth. With two runners on and two outs recorded by Miami lefty Mike Dunn, Rendon stepped up and smoked a 1-2 fastball inside for a long double to left that bounced off the wall in front of the visitor's bullpen some 377 ft from home. Two runs scored and the Nationals took a 5-0 lead.
Through 105 games and 421 PAs in the majors over which he has a ..275/.334/.413 line with 26 doubles and eight home runs, the "polished, accomplished college hitter" the Nationals drafted looks very much like the "consumate, professional hitter," Rizzo said he could become back in June of 2011.
Matt Williams worked with Rendon early in the infielder's pro career in the Arizona Fall League in the former major leaguer's only previous managing gig before taking over on the Nationals' bench.
Williams said today that Rendon's patient, calm approach at the plate has led to his success early in his major league career.
"Just the way he's staying on the baseball," Williams said when asked what stood out about the 23-year-old infielder. "Last night was an example of taking what they're going to give you and then getting in a situation where they have to come to you a little bit and taking advantage of it. So, he's hit a lot of balls up the middle, a lot of balls to right-center, staying on the baseball really well and last night he got a pitch to hit to his pull side and almost hit it out of the ballpark. So he's been very impressive in that regard."
Rendon's ability to hit to all fields is something Williams said comes naturally to the second/third baseman.
"I think it's a product of his swing," Williams told reporters. "His predominant path, for me, is back through the middle the other way. And that's what makes him so successful in that regard. That's why he fits in the no.2 spot. You can hit behind a runner there. That's why he drives runs in, because he stays in the big part of the ballpark."
"I don't know if he's hit a ball down the left field line yet," Williams continued, "but that's just a product of him staying through the baseball. So is it approach? Yeah, kind of, but that's his natural approach, middle of the diamond. And he's got certainly power to his pull side and can drive the ball to that left-center field gap as well, so I think he's just stayed with what he's done well, and that's back through the middle."
A reporter, noting that he's seen pitchers trying to bust Rendon inside to keep him from going the other way, asked what it is about Rendon's swing that allows him to hit the ball wherever it's pitched?
"It's short," Williams said. "It's really short. He stands at the plate and you look and you don't think he's going to swing because he's so calm and so relaxed. And then his hands just get through the baseball, so it's good. He's playing really well."
The five teams who were scared off by the shoulder injury which held him back during his final season at Rice in 2011 might regret taking a pass on Anthony Rendon.