Always Mr. Cool, Rendon's HR broke the ice

7th-inning blast gave the Nats life and sparked decisive rally

October 31st, 2019

HOUSTON -- Zack Greinke was, in Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long’s estimation, “absolutely amazing.” Through four innings Wednesday night in World Series Game 7, Greinke faced the minimum. Little changed in the fifth and the sixth; suddenly, the Nats’ future could be better measured in outs than in innings. Nine to go. Then eight.

Then stepped to the plate, took a ball outside, stepped out, adjusted his batting gloves and regrouped. As is his custom, Rendon leaned back a bit as Greinke launched into his delivery, emanating an air of casualness. His general manager, Mike Rizzo, calls it Rendon’s “slow pulse,” and perhaps that’s apt. Rendon hardly looked as if he were playing for a title in front of 43,326 fans at Minute Maid Park when he coiled, dropped his bat head and crushed an 89-mph changeup about three-quarters of the way up the Crawford Boxes in left.

The home run moved the Nationals within one run of the Astros, positioning them to take their first lead on Howie Kendrick’s two-run shot two batters later. More than anything, it defibrillated a team in danger of finishing as Major League Baseball’s first runner-up.

“That at-bat gave us some life and some hope,” Long said.

“It broke the ice,” added Rizzo. “It kind of broke us loose.”

As the Nationals’ best and most consistent hitter from April through October, Rendon has played that role all season. So it was fitting when he took Greinke deep, setting a series of events into motion that resulted in Greinke leaving the game, Kendrick homering off Will Harris and the Nats beating the Astros, 6-2, to claim the first title in franchise history.

In the Nationals’ five elimination games this postseason, Rendon batted in the seventh inning or later on eight occasions. He homered three times, doubled three others and walked once, becoming the first player ever to go deep in three consecutive elimination games in a single postseason.

“You watch Tony Rendon day in, day out, I think he’s the best hitter in baseball,” Long said. “I’m biased, but he happens to be a world champion now.”

Although the World Series MVP trophy went to Stephen Strasburg, it easily could have gone to Rendon for a seven-game run that saw him hit .276 with two home runs, eight RBIs and a .930 OPS. He did it all with his usual brand of cool, outwardly acting as if he were playing in June, not October.

Inside, Rendon admitted to a different sort of feeling. In the dugout during the middle innings, he spoke with Trea Turner about the atmosphere and the crowd, about how the general frenzy made a two-run deficit seem many multiples greater.

Rendon’s homer had the opposite effect, offering the Nats confidence that they could, in fact, win the World Series.

“Probably a bad idea to throw that pitch,” Greinke said, noting that the selection came from him -- not his catcher or the Astros’ bench. “Looking back at it, it should have done something different.”

Rendon was happy to take advantage, particularly in Houston where he was born and raised, playing his high school and college ball within the city limits.

“Growing up, you think about playing in the big leagues one day,” Rendon said. “But to this scale, and winning a World Series in your hometown, I don’t think you could have planned that.”

The Series was a showcase for Rendon in another way as well. Coming off an age-29 season that was almost certainly strong enough to make him a National League MVP Award finalist, he will be the highest-profile position player on the free-agent market this offseason. Repped by Scott Boras, Rendon has already declined a seven-year offer worth at least $210 million to return to the Nationals, according to the Washington Post. The Rangers, with a brand-new stadium just four hours up the road from Houston, will almost certainly have interest in luring him home to Texas. The Angels, Dodgers, Cardinals and others could pursue him as well.

Rizzo, who has the power to bring Rendon back to Washington, called him “our MVP” and “the best player on our team,” lauding him as “great between the lines, in the clubhouse, in the community” and “one of the best teammates we’ve ever had here.” But whether Rendon returns, Rizzo said, is a “decision for tomorrow.”

And regardless of that decision? Regardless of the result tomorrow, or in January, or a decade down the line? Rendon, because of his seventh-inning homer, will always be a part of Nationals lore.

“We’re the last ones standing,” Rendon said. “It’s overwhelming, for sure. But it feels good to be on top.”