If Anthony Rendon is going to make one final case for MVP votes, it'll have to come in Sunday's season finale.
Rendon is not in the lineup for tonight's game against the Pirates, a decision made in conjunction with manager Dusty Baker in an attempt to stay fresh heading into the postseason.
Baker described the star third baseman as being "just a little fatigued" and thus in need of a breather. Rendon has started the last four games and 12 of the Nationals' last 14.
"We discussed it yesterday, and he thought he needed a day," Baker said. "So I decided to give him either today or tomorrow, and we're going to give him today. He's just a little fatigued. He hasn't gotten a real good lift in to get his strength back. So we decided today was the day."
Unless he comes off the bench at some point tonight, Rendon will enter the regular season finale batting .301 with 24 homers, 97 RBIs, a .404 on-base percentage and .932 OPS. His 6.9 WAR also ranks second in the National League, trailing only Giancarlo Stanton's 7.0 mark, according to FanGraphs.com's formula.
All of that makes Rendon one of several serious candidates for what looks like a wide-open MVP race this season. Among the other contenders: Stanton (59 homers, 130 RBIs), Paul Goldschmidt (36 homers, 120 RBIs, .5.4 WAR), Nolan Arenado (37 homers, 130 RBIs, 5.5 WAR), Charlie Blackmon (37 homers, 103 RBIs, 6.5 WAR), Joey Votto (36 homers, .455 on-base percentage, 6.6 WAR) and Ryan Zimmerman (36 homers, .927 OPS, 3.2 WAR).
Rendon has cooled off a bit over the last month, but he hasn't fallen off a cliff. He's batting .276/.382/.447 with two homers and 11 RBIs in September.
While Rendon gets tonight off, Bryce Harper remains in the lineup for the fourth time in five days since returning from his significant left knee and calf injury. Harper played seven innings Friday night, going 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts.
Harper has yet to rediscover his stroke at the plate and is 1-for-10 with one walk and four strikeouts so far since his activation off the disabled list. At this point, the only thing that matters to Baker is that his star right fielder is healthy and able to play. The two didn't even need to have a formal conversation today to discuss whether Harper was good to go.
"I just said hello, and he just said hello," Baker said. "That means it's all good. I didn't ask him anything. Because I've been there. You get tired of being asked. 'I'll let you know if I'm not OK.' So as long as he says hello and I say hello back, then we're all cool."
Barring any setbacks, Harper will play the bulk of tonight's game and then return Sunday for the finale (it's unclear yet if he'll get a full nine innings in at any point). Then comes the tricky part: How do the Nationals keep Harper sharp when they have four days off before Game 1 of the National League Division Series?
For most of their players who have been through the grind all season, a little break isn't the worst thing. For Harper, it's not needed at this point, certainly not as much as more at-bats.
How, though, does the team find a way for him and others to face live pitchers during that interim period next week?
"There's nowhere to ... unless you send him to (the instructional league in) Florida and have him come right back," Baker said. "No, we'll just have him to do what he can here. We haven't made up our minds exactly yet what we're going to do during those times. Are we going to have guys throw to him? But you don't want to risk a guy getting hit from a line drive, either. And you don't want to start bad habits throwing behind a (protective) screen. There's only so much simulation that you can do."
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