For Ian Desmond, the road to the Washington Nationals’ first playoff game started before the Washington Nationals existed. He became a professional baseball player when the Montreal Expos drafted him 2004. His athleticism made him stand out in the first Nationals’ spring training – Jim Bowden compared him Derek Jeter.
He seemed headed for stardom, sooner rather than later. In the minors, though, he stalled. He made 39 errors one year and hit .228 in another. He injured his hand. The major leagues seemed far away for a while, and he reached them only after five years in the minors. He learned hard lessons, made a boatload or errors and a boatload of outs. He searched. After one game in which he made two errors, he wondered if he needed a smaller glove.
All of that got him to where he is now. This year, at 26, Desmond blossomed into one of the best shortstops in the major league. The Nationals played their first playoff game Sunday afternoon, and Desmond played bigger than any of them. He went 3 for 4 and threw out a runner at the plate. The playoffs never daunted him, not after the long, hard path he took to reach them.
“Out there on the field, I’ve played so many games in my life,” Desmond said. “I haven’t always been on the upperhand. I’ve kind of battled and grinded my way through. There’s been a lot of negative situations. From those, I’ve learned a lot. Today I was out there, thinking of situations in the past. It probably happened 50 times. I’m thinking, ‘Okay. Learn from this one. You’ve been here before. You’ve seen this before.’ It paid off. It’s just the first game, but it felt good.”
Desmond factored into all three runs the Nationals scored. In the second inning, his line-drive single to center pushed Adam LaRoche to third, allowing him to score on Kurt Suzuki’s single. In the eighth, he roped a single to right that sent Michael Morse to third, and he scored the game-winning run standing up on Tyler Moore’s pinch-hit single.
“There’s no secret to what I’m trying to do up there,” Desmond said. “I’m not trying to surprise anybody, I’m not trying to do any tricks or anything like that. I’m going up there try to get a good pitch to hit and hit it. If I can control my heartbeat, I don’t feel that these games are any different than the rest of them.”
Desmond’s biggest play may have come in the field. With the bases loaded and the Nationals down one in the second, Ryan Mattheus’s amazing escape began with a groundball to Desmond.
This was one of those moments Desmond learned from. When Allen Craig’s groundball rolled to him, Desmond thought back to a game last month against the Atlanta Braves, when he misfired on a throw home that allowed Andrelton Simmons to score the game-winning run.
“I thought about what had happened in the past,” Desmond said. “It was a little bit different play, a little more bang-bang. But I knew I needed to keep myself under control and deliver a strike.”
Desmond threw an easy bullet to Kurt Suzuki. With the next pitch, Mattheus got a double play that ended the inning. The Nationals were on their way, largely thanks Desmond, a former Expo now leading the Nationals.