New Angels star Anthony Rendon handles big-game pressure with a big league yawn
Dave Martinez stormed off the field last October, the Washington Nationals manager’s anger over a controversial runner’s interference call at first base leading to the first World Series ejection of a field boss in 23 years.
As he slipped through the dugout en route to the clubhouse in Minute Maid Park, the air thick with tension in the seventh inning of a one-run Game 6 against the Houston Astros, Martinez caught a glimpse of Nationals slugger Anthony Rendon, who, amid all the commotion, looked like a guy waiting for a bus.
“After my little episode with the umpires, I remember turning around and seeing him sitting on the wall near the on-deck circle, just kicking back like he didn’t have a care in the world, ”Martinez said at the team’s West Palm Beach, Fla., training facility in February.
“And the next thing you know, he goes up there and hits a home run. That’s Anthony Rendon.”
Rendon’s towering two-run blast to left field off Will Harris pushed Washington’s lead to 5-2, but you’d hardly know it looking at Rendon.
While the Nationals bench exploded with jubilation, Rendon’s face was expressionless. He rounded the bases with nary a fist pump. He barely cracked a smile as he accepted congratulatory high-fives in the dugout.
Rendon added a two-out, two-run double off Chris Devenski in the ninth inning to seal a 7-2 win. The following night, in Game 7, his seventh-inning homer snapped Zack Greinke’s shutout and kick-started a 6-2 victory that clinched the Nationals’ first World Series championship.
It’s this ability to perform in the clutch, to slow the game down in heart-pounding moments, to be seemingly impervious to pressure and to deliver in the clutch that the Nationals will miss most about Rendon as they look to defend their title in a pandemic-shortened 60-game season without the star third baseman.
The Angels’ Matt Thaiss tested positive for the coronavirus last month and, despite being asymptomatic, says the experience was “mentally defeating.”
And it’s what the Angels, who haven’t won a playoff game in 10 years or reached the postseason in six years, hope to gain after signing the 29-year-old Houston native to a seven-year, $245-million free-agent contract in December.
“The Angels are getting a superstar, whether they know it or not,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said at the team’s spring-training complex. “He’s really consistent, even-keeled and calm. It’s innate. Whether it’s Game 7 of the World Series or he’s hanging out in the locker room in spring training, he’s the same guy.”
At Rendon’s introductory news conference in Anaheim in December, agent Scott Boras said the best way to describe Rendon’s personality is by how he takes his physicals.
“They put him on a treadmill, they can’t get his heartbeat up, and he’s doing it for 20 minutes,” Boras said. “That tells you about the calm of Anthony Rendon.”
The portrait of Rendon that emerged from the Nationals clubhouse this spring was that of a human metronome, a player who is as productive and consistent on the field as he is predictable and easygoing off of it.
Rendon does not seek the spotlight or shrink from it. If he ever churns on the inside, it doesn’t show on the outside. It’s not in his nature to panic. He’s been known to yawn during some of his most pressure-packed at-bats.
“Tony shows more emotion whether the Rockets win or lose a basketball game than he does on the baseball field,” Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg said.
Rendon, who will team with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani to give the Angels a formidable middle-of-the-order trio, wasn’t always this serene.
“I was kind of a spaz in high school,” said Rendon, who attended three different schools before finding the right fit at Lamar High in Houston. “I had a temper. I always wanted to get a hit. I was competitive, so I’d always throw my helmet and get angry.”
As Rendon matured physically and emotionally at Rice University, where he was named college baseball’s player of the year in 2010 and where he became a Christian, his anger and frustration began to subside.
Rendon learned to control what he could — his work ethic, the time he spent in the batting cage, the number of ground balls he took, his study of opposing pitchers — and to let go of the results. He learned to accept failure.
“If you get too high during the highs and too low during the lows, you get drained mentally, and you’re probably going to end up being drained physically, too, because you’re beating yourself up,” Rendon said. “So having an even-keeled attitude is perfect in this environment.”
Rendon laughs when reminded of the stoic look on his face after his dramatic World Series Game 6 homer, but he swears his insides matched his outside.
“That home run didn’t win us the World Series,” Rendon said. “I don’t want to be that person who celebrates too early, like the marathon runner who thinks he won the race and gets passed up at the last minute. But once we were on stage with that trophy, I let loose.”
What first-year Angels manager Joe Maddon saw from the Chicago Cubs dugout over the past five years he is now witnessing up close.
“Brother, he’s unflappable,” Maddon said of Rendon. “We saw it from the other side, and we always said that about him. Then you get to be with him, and it’s validated. He’s not overwhelmed or overly impressed with anything, including himself, I think. That’s the best way to describe him.”
Though the contract for Rendon came together during a two-day whirlwind of negotiations at the winter meetings, Angels owner Arte Moreno’s infatuation with Rendon began a decade ago, when Rendon was in college.
“I knew the [athletic director] at Rice, and he called me and said I got a player here that you need to see,” Moreno said. “I had the name early and then watched him with Washington. Everybody got really focused on him in the playoffs, but what he’s done historically, the way he played, his background, I just really felt it would be a great fit for what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
After hitting .319 with a 1.010 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 34 homers and a league-leading 44 doubles and 126 RBIs to place third in NL most valuable player voting in 2019, Rendon shined in the postseason.
He hit .412 with five RBIs in the division series against the Dodgers, sparking a Game 5 comeback with the first of back-to-back solo homers off Clayton Kershaw that tied the score in the eighth inning. He doubled off Joe Kelly ahead of Howie Kendrick’s game-winning grand slam in the 10th.
Rendon hit .417 in an NL championship series sweep over St. Louis and had two homers, three doubles and eight RBIs in the World Series. He made several run-saving defensive plays throughout the month.
“You saw it in the playoffs last year — this guy has ice in veins, literally, like nothing bothers him, nothing gets his heart racing,” Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “I think that’s what makes him special, because there are a lot of guys with talent, but not a lot of guys who can handle the whole stage. He can.”
That stage won’t be as grand and the lights won’t be as bright when the Angels open the season at Oakland on Friday night. Games initially will be played without fans, and the lack of in-stadium buzz could neutralize one of Rendon’s strengths, his ability to thrive in high-pressure, high-energy situations.
“When you have more people in the stands and they’re egging you on, whether they’re cheering for you or against you, that will get you excited or more motivated,” Rendon said on a recent video conference call. “Each individual can find a way to use that to his advantage.
“With no fans, it could go either way [depending on the] player. For me, I try to keep it as simple as possible. I try to catch the ball, throw it, see the ball and put the barrel on it. Hopefully, it doesn’t have any impact on me, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Rendon’s demeanor is reflected in his stance and swing. He arches slightly back at the waist before leaning into the pitch, his hands quiet, save for a little waggle, his head still, an approach that reminds Strasburg of his former coach at San Diego State, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
“His mechanics are so simple, and it’s something he can repeat easily,” Strasburg said. “He has the luxury of having really quick, really strong hands, so he can let the ball get deep and track pitches deep. When you’re able to do that, you don’t commit early and chase too many pitches.”
Rendon is that rare slugger who combines power with plate discipline. He’s averaged 25 homers and 100 RBIs the past four seasons. He had more walks (84) than strikeouts (82) in 2017 and almost as many walks (80) as strikeouts (86) in 2019.
“There’s no panic in his swing,” Suzuki said. “His hand-eye coordination and his reaction times are some of the best I’ve ever seen. He understands the strike zone.”
Consistency is a key. Rendon’s swing has changed little over the years. He still follows the mantra of the man he considers his “hitting mentor,” Houston-area youth coach Willie Ansley, a former minor leaguer who implored Rendon to stay loose, keep his hands inside and put the barrel on the ball.
“That’s what I try to do to this day,” Rendon said. “I’ve been playing this game for a long time, and I know my swing inside and out. I’ve been on both sides of that spectrum, where I’ve been so antsy, I’m like, ‘swing hard, swing hard, I’m gonna kill this ball,’ and it never works out.
“You end up flying open or your shoulder ends up flying out, and it’s not a good swing. The best swings I have are the more relaxed swings. You’re calm, direct to the ball.”
Baseball is back
Rendon is also an asset defensively, despite what advanced statistics say. According to Baseball Savant, Rendon ranked 15th among qualifying third basemen last season.
“I guess if the MIT people say I’m average,” Rendon said with a chuckle, “I’ll be average.”
The Nationals beg to differ. Reliever Sean Doolittle said Rendon is as good as any third baseman at charging slow-rollers and making off-balance throws to first. Pitcher Max Scherzer marveled at Rendon’s ability to field in-between hops and turn what looked to be sure doubles down the line into outs with diving stops.
“I don’t think the metrics reflect what he truly brings defensively,” Doolittle said. “He makes everything look so easy. He’s super smooth over there, he has such quick hands, and he takes a lot of pride in it.”
Rendon leaves a big void in the Nationals’ clubhouse, where he was “friends with everybody, which is hard to do,” Turner said. Doolittle described Rendon as “always upbeat, positive, a really good teammate,” adding that he’s the type of guy “who would bring in donuts and snacks for the training staff.”
Rendon was not a vocal leader in Washington, nor was he a media darling. He does not have Twitter or Instagram accounts. Though he was cooperative, affable and engaging during a 25-minute interview in Tempe, Ariz., in March, he is not one to hold court with reporters every day.
“I’m an introvert by nature,” Rendon said. “I don’t like it when people recognize me when I’m at dinner or out grocery shopping. There are some people out there who enjoy the attention more than others, and I’m not that person. I’m here to do my job, to try to hit homers, field ground balls and help my club win.”
Baseball is Rendon’s job, but it is “not who I am as a person,” he said. He is a husband to Amanda, a father to daughters Emma (2) and Savannah (4 months), a brother to David, a son to Rene and Bridget Rendon. He has a rule when visiting family and relatives for holiday gatherings: No talking about baseball.
“I’m just a normal person like everyone else,” Rendon said. “Don’t treat me any different.”
But as much as Rendon prefers to blend in rather than stand out, his on-field heroics make that difficult at times.
“Tony doesn’t want the spotlight, he doesn’t want everyone out there talking about him, he just wants to play baseball and go home to his family,” Suzuki said. “That’s the kind of person he is. He’s the best player nobody ever talks about.”
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