VIERA, Fla. - It was a seemingly innocuous play, a simple dive to field a hard bouncer to his left. Anthony Rendon made the play, snagging Alberto Callaspo's chopper and firing a one-hopper to first to nail the Braves infielder. The sparse crowd at Space Coast Stadium applauded.
Who could have known at the time that last March 9 play would have such lasting consequences for Rendon, and perhaps the Nationals as a whole?
"Just bad luck," Rendon said this week, recalling the incident.
What at first was diagnosed as a mild knee sprain, something would sideline him only a couple of days, wound up far more serious. Rendon sprained the medial collateral ligament in the knee, and he didn't finally make his 2015 season debut until June 4. Throw in another month-long stint on the disabled list with a strained quad muscle, and Rendon ultimately played only 80 games for the Nationals during what proved to be a lost season.
It didn't help that his final numbers were so poor - .264 batting average, five homers, 25 RBIs, .707 OPS - compared to his breakthrough 2014, when he finished fifth in National League MVP voting after hitting .287 with 21 homers, 83 RBIs and an .824 OPS.
From Rendon's perspective, the entire season was a wash because even when healthy enough to play, he admits he was never actually 100 percent healthy.
"I was always playing catch up," he said. "Everyone's in midseason form, and it's like I'm just freshly coming out of spring training. Yeah, you have rehab at-bats in the minors. That really helped a lot, but it didn't push me over that edge. I was just constantly trying to find the barrel, trying to find my comfortability at the plate, trying to find my comfortability on the field. Toward the end of the season, I started to feel good. But I wouldn't say I was 100 percent back last year."
As he begins his preparations for this season, Rendon does finally feel 100 percent healthy. The knee has long since stopped being an issue. Same for the quad. He has some of his soft-spoken swagger back, the first-round pick with the sweet swing feeling like himself again at long last.
He also finds himself in an old, familiar spot on the field this spring: third base, his natural position despite the fact he actually has started more major league games at second base (165 to 155).
In 2013, he shifted in favor of Ryan Zimmerman, whose chronic shoulder condition didn't yet prevent him from playing third base. He got to man the hot corner for most of 2014 while Zimmerman dealt with injuries, but his own injury last spring set in motion a chain of events that led to Yunel Escobar getting the bulk of the reps at third base and once again left Rendon out of position.
That won't be the case anymore. With Zimmerman now a full-time first baseman and Escobar having been traded to the Angels, Rendon is free to play his natural position all of the time. He has taken all of his grounders so far this spring at third, and he believes that makes a difference.
"I think so," he said. "Instead of focusing on multiple things, if you can focus on one thing, you can put all your effort into whatever that is. That's going to benefit anybody. I think anyone would enjoy that."
Rendon thinks that also could have a positive effect on his offensive performance, much as he wishes the two parts of his game weren't tied together.
"Everyone always says don't take your defense into your hitting, don't take your hitting into your defense," he said. "But if you feel comfortable at one, I think the other is going to feed off it."
If that proves true, Rendon might just turn back into that MVP candidate again in 2016. And the Nationals might just be back on the right track toward October.
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