Ted Leavengood: Déjà vu all over again

There was something eerie watching Drew Storen work a perfect eighth inning against the Cardinals last night. More uncanny is the similarity of Ryan Zimmerman going on the DL on both April 20, 2012 and April 21, 2013. Zimmerman was hitting a lusty .224 with a single home run and seven RBIs last year and fast forward to Sunday, and Zimmerman is hitting .226 with a single homer.

Last year, Bryce Harper was summoned just a week later. He was well ahead of schedule and started slow. But he caught fire at the end of May and was a mainstay of the offense throughout the season. This year the call-up is another talented rookie, Anthony Rendon. The circumstances are so similar, so close to déjà vu that you want to believe the 2012 vision of the Nats finishing April with a 14-8 record and tied for first place still has validity.

At that point the mirage vanishes.

Instead, you see today’s Nationals with record of 10-9. It would be nice to think that the Nationals could finish out the month on a streak and anything is possible in baseball. But Washington dropped two of three to the Mets in New York, held at arm’s length most of the weekend by the worst bullpen in the majors. They have played neither smart nor well. They lead the National League in errors. Many of them are attributable, as Zimmerman admitted about one of his four errors, to “not thinking.”

On the other side, there is Jayson Werth, who killed an eighth-inning rally Sunday in the rubber game against the Mets by needlessly hitting into a double play. He swung at a 3-0 sinker from Scott Rice, who had walked the previous batter and could not find the plate. Werth admitted to reporters that swinging at the pitch was “probably one of the dumber things...I have done in a while.”
Last season, the Nationals won every series in April until their west coast swing to Los Angeles. This year, they have lost as many series as they have won and were it not for five wins against the Marlins, there would be real trouble in River City.

The most notable similarity in the early call for Harper in 2012 and Rendon’s summons Sunday is the creative impulse by Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson. It was not a foregone conclusion that Rendon would replace Zimmerman. Chad Tracy and Steve Lombardozzi filled in for Zimmerman ably last year. Rizzo could have tapped Eury Perez, Jeff Kobernus or one of several Syracuse players off to hot starts. But there was a need for a game changer and regardless how well he performs with the bat, Rendon can only help solidify the left side of a Nats infield that has committed ten of their 15 errors.

In the spring, Rendon hit .375 with four home runs to tie for the lead on the team with Zimmerman. He is capable of putting up numbers very similar to those Zimmerman has posted in the majors. But that may take time. More importantly, he was named the best defensive infielder in the Nationals’ minor leagues last season. So infield defense going forward should be better than what we have seen over the first three weeks.

Rendon will be sent back down when Zimmerman’s hamstring is healthy again. He is no Harper, who will set the league on its ear and propel the team offensively. If Rizzo and Johnson believe the team needs something new and exciting to change the direction of the 2013 season, it will not come from Rendon, not now.

The Nationals need to play a smarter brand of baseball, by their own admission. Dan Haren needs to find the command that has been his hallmark and when he finds it he might let Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg know where it is.

Every season has its own narrative. There may be fleeting déjà vu moments, but the season itself will unwind very differently than last year’s. There is no less chance for the Nationals to win the World Series now than when the season began, but there is a need for a smarter approach. And if Rendon is not that Harper moment that helps bring out the creative flair of Rizzo and Johnson, then let’s hope it is coming soon.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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