After a slow, injury-plagued start to the 2014 season, the Washington Nationals have quickly become one of the best teams in the National League and are currently tied with the Atlanta Braves for first place in the NL East. The Nationals have overcome a lot, and although it takes a team effort to survive all those injuries and many players stepped up when the team’s best hitters went down, nobody has been more important to the Nationals than Anthony Rendon.
Before the season began, the Nationals had a lineup that was as star-studded and potent as any in the majors. With a stellar pitching staff and a powerful core of Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Adam LaRoche, the Nationals were expected to cruise into the playoffs. But from the very first day of the season, part of the plan started to fall apart.
Although the pitching staff – which is arguably the best in baseball – performed as advertised and wasn’t hampered too much by the injury to Doug Fister, the offense was derailed by its injuries. First, Ramos went down. Followed by Zimmerman. Then Harper.
The Nationals’ fearsome middle of the order had suddenly been reduced to Werth, who was very inconsistent early on, and LaRoche, who has had a solid season but missed time on the disabled list as well. With all the injuries, along with early season flops from Denard Span and Danny Espinosa, the Nationals needed someone to break out and carry the offense when no one else could. Fortunately, Rendon stepped up. Big time.
In the month of April, when Ramos, Zimmerman and Harper hit the DL, Rendon turned in the best month of his young career. The 24-year-old hit .312 with 16 RBIs and 14 extra base hits in 27 games. Among NL third basemen with a minimum of 75 plate appearances in April, Rendon ranked first in doubles (9), triples (2), slugging percentage (.514) and OPS (.864). He also ranked second in runs scored (18), hits (34), RBIs and batting average.
In a game where having a good first month can be the difference between playing baseball in October and going home early, the Nationals finished April with a record of 16-12, largely because of Rendon’s contributions.
May was a different story, however, as the third baseman batted just .212 with seven RBIs and five extra base hits. Consequently, the Nationals struggled as well, posting a losing record of 11-14 in the month.
But what Rendon didn’t do in May, he more than made up for in June, when he hit .310 with six home runs and 19 RBIs. Rendon was once again among the best third basemen in the NL, ranking first in RBIs and second in slugging percentage (.560) and OPS (.926). Rendon’s performance — along with continued strong pitching and the return of several players from the DL — helped guide the Nationals to their best month of the season (thus far) as the team went 17-11.
Rendon’s success carried over into July, where he’s hitting .326 with seven RBIs and nine extra-base hits in 11 games.
Overall, Rendon is hitting .287 with 13 home runs and 53 RBIs. He leads the team in runs (67), hits (103), triples (5, tied with Span), batting average and slugging percentage (.490). Not surprisingly, Rendon also leads the team in WAR.
But Rendon’s contributions to the team during the first half go beyond his success at the plate. Although he’s been the Nationals’ best hitter, he’s also been very successful defensively. Spending most of the season at third base, Rendon has played Gold Glove-caliber defense from Day One and has proven to be a major upgrade at third base from Zimmerman, who has returned to the hot corner since Harper was activated from the DL.
Perhaps the best part about Rendon is that he has not only been the Nationals’ best player this season, but he’s done it without drawing any attention to himself. Rendon isn’t actively looking for the spotlight and lets his performance on the field speak for him. Even when he had a chance to make the All-Star team via the NL Final Vote and his teammates did everything they could to showcase his talents, the young infielder just smiled and played baseball.
After 93 games, Rendon is, without a doubt, the Nationals’ MVP. He leads the team in nearly every offensive category and stepped up when others could not. He may not get as much publicity as other young players, such as teammate Harper, but he’s OK with that. He’s flown under the radar, but Rendon has proven that he’s one of the best young players in the game, and the best player on this team.
With all the injuries the Nationals faced in the first half, Rendon was forced to carry the offense and help keep the team above water. Now, with the Nationals already in first place and everybody healthy again, there’s no telling what this team can accomplish down the stretch. That being said, there’s still a lot of baseball to be played and anything can happen. One thing’s for certain, the Nationals would not be where they are right now if it wasn’t for Rendon.