SAN DIEGO - Howie Kendrick stepped to the plate in the top of the eighth Sunday afternoon, the Nationals and Padres tied. It was his first at-bat of the game, manager Davey Martinez having hoped to give him a well-earned day off, but now needing his veteran utilityman to pinch-hit in a key spot.
Inside the visitors’ dugout, the Nationals - to a man - just knew something big was about to happen, courtesy the 35-year-old they affectionately view as a grandfatherly figure.
“I feel like when he’s up, we’re just all like: ‘Here goes G-Pa. G-Pa’s gonna do what he’s done for a million years, and he’s gonna do it again. We’re just gonna sit here and watch it happen,’” right fielder Adam Eaton said. “And then when he does it, we’re not really surprised, but we’re also really surprised. It’s pretty cool to watch, and we’re happy to have him.”
Was anyone really surprised what Kendrick did? Was anyone truly stunned when he ripped a solo home run off Craig Stammen to give the Nationals the lead and add another chapter to his remarkable 2019 story?
No, we’ve just come to expect this now, as ludicrous as that sounds.
“I don’t know why he takes days off,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said. “Every time he plays, we do great things. And then I told him he was the greatest player ever before he went up (to bat). And he hit a homer.”
Kendrick has always been considered a professional hitter, one of the highest compliments a ballplayer can give a teammate. He entered the season with a .291 batting average across nearly 6,000 major league plate appearances, along with a respectable .422 slugging percentage and .756 OPS.
But this season ... well, this season Kendrick has taken his game to heights he’s never visited before. His clutch homer Sunday raised his batting average to .327, his slugging percentage to .596, his OPS to .960.
He has 39 RBIs in only 173 plate appearances. He’s batting .400 with runners in scoring position.
And that’s why clutch hits like Sunday’s homer - which, by the way, ignited the Nationals to a historic string of four consecutive home runs - didn’t surprise anyone in the dugout.
“I kind of expect it out of him,” said shortstop Trea Turner, who was in the on-deck circle and then hit his own homer moments later. “Because he’s been so good, because he’s a professional. Every time he goes up there, he gives us a good at-bat, seems to put the barrel on the ball.”
Ever reluctant to talk about himself, Kendrick has attempted to heap praise on his teammates. The most he had to say about his home run that he “was just happy to get the barrel on the ball. A rare mistake there, and we capitalized on it.”
That’s OK, because Kendrick’s teammates are heaping enough praise on him to get the job done. They know how important he is to this club.
“Man, he means the world,” said Rendon, who’s having a career-best year himself. “He should definitely be an All-Star, that’s for sure. Nobody’s talking about him.”
Kendrick isn’t on the official All-Star ballot, because he didn’t enter the season as one of the Nationals’ eight projected everyday position players. So his only chance to make the National League’s starting lineup is through an unlikely write-in candidacy.
But the players get to choose the All-Star reserves, and given how much they all seem to respect Kendrick, there does seem to be a realistic path for him to be selected to represent the Nats next month in Cleveland.
Whether it happens or not, nobody in D.C. is taking for granted this remarkable performance from a longtime favorite teammate.
“It’s pretty cool to see what he’s doing,” Eaton said. “We’ve had this discussion many times before. It’s impressive. And we definitely feed off that, off his energy. It’s really easier said than done, just getting the job done and doing it consistently and doing it all the time. But he’s done it for us, and we feed off that.”