After watching the team play four fall scrimmages, Rice's boosters expressed their main concern to coach Wayne Graham: Is there any player on the Owls' roster who can hit 10 home runs?
Graham gave them a simple response: Yes, Anthony Rendon. Graham predicted Rendon could even hit 15 home runs and be a power threat in the middle of Rice's lineup.
"It surprised them when I said Anthony, because he hadn't hit any in the fall," Graham said. "But we watched batting practice every day and we watched the ball disappear every day."
Eight months later, Rendon proved any doubters wrong and one-upped Graham's prediction. The Houston native belted a freshman-best 20 home runs this season. He also hit a team-leading .388 BA/.461 OBP/.702 SLG with 72 RBIs, propelling Rice to a 43-18 season and a super regional berth.
After becoming the first player to garner Conference USA Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors in the same season, Rendon has new hardware for the trophy case. Along with being a second-team All-America selection, he is Baseball America's Freshman of the Year.
"He had the best freshman year we've ever had," said Graham, who already coached one winner, Joe Savery in 2005. "Anthony's year offensively is pretty much transcendental."
Rendon joins Savery as the second Rice player to win freshman of the year honors. Savery was later a first-round draft pick of the Phillies (2007). Both Rendon and Savery attended Lamar High, just two miles away from Rice's campus in Houston.
But the Rendon-Savery comparisons stop there. Rendon bats and throws right; Savery does so from the left side. Savery earned the award as much on the rubber as in the box, while Rendon powered his way to it.
"A lot of people go up there and think about what they're going to do -- I just hit," Rendon said. "I relax and don't think about anything. I just want to hit the ball as hard and as far as I can."
Rendon didn't waste much time doing just that. In Rice's fourth game of the season, Rendon propelled the Owls to a 9-2 win with a 4-for-4 performance, including a three-run home run. A week later, Rendon blasted another three-run shot, this one in an 8-3 winning effort over then-No. 6 Baylor.
From that point on, Rendon established his place in the lineup: cleanup hitter.
"I didn't expect this," he said. "I wanted to come in, be in the starting lineup and be productive I wanted five home runs and was hoping for 10."
Deep in the heart
Still, Graham said he expected Rendon to hit in the heart of his lineup from Day 1. At the team's first practice, Graham called his coaching staff over when Rendon was taking batting practice to make a glowing comparison.
"I said, 'You want to see Hank Aaron's wrists? Well, there they are,'" Graham said, who watched Aaron take batting practice numerous times during Graham's 11 professional seasons with the Phillies and Mets. "He's really got what we used to call -- years ago -- 'flick.' He's got great wrist action. He compares very favorably to [North Carolina All-American] Dustin Ackley in wrist action."
Graham was quick to point out that Rendon is more than a power hitter, comparing the third baseman to Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.
Of all the kids we've ever had here, nobody has more fun playing baseball than Anthony.
”-- Rice coach Wayne Graham
on Anthony Rendon
"It's a power package at a power position with a good arm and the kind of movement that you want at that position," Graham said.
Rendon's biggest speed bump didn't come until the end of Rice's season. In the second inning of a 5-3 loss to LSU in the Baton Rouge Super Regional, Rendon injured his right ankle chasing a fly ball in foul territory. Rendon tore two ligaments in the ankle and had surgery June 15. There was no fracture or ligament damage, according to ankle and foot specialist Dr. Tom Clanton, who also operated on the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming's foot.
Rendon was scheduled to attend the trials for the USA Baseball college national team. Instead, he's going to take the summer off to prepare for the fall. Rendon hopes to make a full recovery and start practicing in October.
But Graham said if one thing is going to get Rendon through the injury, it's his passion for the game. Rendon is never going to be criticized for not trying.
"Of all the kids we've ever had here, nobody has more fun playing baseball than Anthony," Graham said. "I love baseball, but I never particularly loved to practice when I was a player. He loves to practice."
Rendon's passion for the game comes from playing with his brother, who is four years older and challenged him to compete from a young age. It hasn't changed.
"Baseball is what I always wanted to do with my life," he said. "I always want to play, and I always want to hold a ball or glove or bat."
For more on college baseball, check out Baseball America.