Ian Desmond has been the Nationals’ best player

brushback_harperManager Davey Johnson called Ian Desmond late Wednesday night to let him know he would be changing the Nationals’ lineup, moving Desmond from sixth to second, in search of some – any – kind of spark. Johnson also told Desmond to “keep the fan on,” an old saying he picked up from the Senators slugger Frank Howard. He wanted Desmond to not let hitting second alter his aggressive approach.

The message carried throughout the Nationals’ 8-5 victory on the Fourth of July: The Nationals may need to change, but Desmond should stay the same. Back in the No. 2 spot for the first time this year, Desmond went 3 for 4 with an intentional walk, two runs and two steals.

Major League Baseball will announce its all-star teams Saturday evening, and for the second straight year Desmond will likely be named. He is hitting .282/.323/.506 with 15 homers on the season – sixth, sixth, first and tied for first among major league shortstops. He plays every day – 84 of 85 games this year – and he plays steady defense. Since the start of June, Desmond has hit .319/.361/.611 over 125 plate appearances.

“He’s been great,” Johnson said. “He’s getting more selective and I think as more of the lineup does its thing, he’ll be even better.”

Since the start of 2012, Desmond has totaled 7.7 wins above replacement, the catch-all metric used by FanGraphs.com to determine a player’s overall value. The next-highest WAR on the Nationals among position players belongs to Bryce Harper, at 6.1. This could change once Harper settles back in and stays healthy, but for now there is not much argument: Desmond is the Nationals’ best player.

In the sixth inning yesterday, Brewers Manager Ron Roenicke ordered lefty reliever Tom Gorzelanny to intentionally walk Desmond in order to load the bases for Harper with two outs. Harper’s .170 average in 47 at-bats against left-handed pitchers informed Roenicke’s decision, but the move also spoke to the respect Desmond had earned in the other dugout. (Harper grounded to first to end the inning.)

“Says a lot,” Johnson said. “But they also know that Harp, right now, doesn’t have his timing all down. So it’s the right move.”

Johnson moved Desmond up in the lineup because he is more apt to steal bases than Werth, and Johnson liked pairing Desmond’s energy with Harper’s. Desmond said he listened to Johnson and didn’t change the way he approached the game, stealing two bases because the opposing starter, Donovan Hand, presented the chance.

“Just kind of playing my game,” Desmond said. “The opportunities were there today to steal a couple bases, and I took them. And obviously I was lucky to get a couple hits. But I keep the same approach, and just a different spot in the lineup.”

Desmond also insisted his bunt single in his second at-bat had more to do with the game situation than his spot in the order.

“My goal is just to be a complete player and not just worry about the home run and things like that,” Desmond said. “But to just try to get on base and try to help the team in any way I can.”

Desmond’s offense makes him a championship-caliber shortstop. His on-base percentage may prevent him from becoming an elite offensive player, period. In a way, though, it is one of his more admirable traits. He understands his strengths and weaknesses, and he knows hitting deep in the count falls into the latter category – he hits .182 with a .517 OPS with two strikes. And so Desmond sacrifices walks to make at-bats shorter and take advantage of his power and ability to smack line drives.

Johnson has often said Desmond’s OBP will increase as he continues to slug, because opposing pitchers will start throwing him fewer strikes to hit. But he doesn’t need to change to be a very good hitter. Desmond knows who he is, and he is a better player for it.

Right now, he’s the best the Nationals have.

FROM THE POST

Wilson Ramos returned after missing 44 games and lifted the Nationals to an 8-5 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Nationals are still searching for consistency, Tracee Hamilton writes.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Storen stumbles

Jordan shows improvement

Ramos returns

Davey going crazy

Espinosa still struggling

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 6, Lehigh Valley 5: Danny Espinosa went 3 for 4 with a double and a walk-off single. Michael Crotta allowed no runs in a perfect relief inning.

Syracuse 7, Lehigh Valley 4: Chris Marrero went 2 for 4 with a double. Espinosa went 1 for 3 with a walk and two strikeouts. Zach Walters was named to the International League all-star team. Tanner Roark allowed two runs in six innings on five hits and a walk, striking out four.

Bowie 6, Harrisburg 2: Brian Goodwin went 1 for 3 with a walk. Steven Souza went 1 for 4 with a home run. Blake Treinen allowed five earned runs in six innings on 10 hits and a walk, striking out two.

Potomac 3, Wilmington 1: Adrian Nieto went 1 for 3 with a home run. Billy Burns went 2 for 4. Ivan Pineyro allowed no runs in seven innings on three hits and a walk, striking out three.

Hagerstown 5, Delmarva 1: Pedro Severino went 3 for 4 with a home run. Tony Renda went 2 for 5. Ian Dickson, the pitcher acquired from the Cubs for Henry Rodriguez, allowed no runs in four innings on one hit and a walk, striking out four.

Jamestown 5, Auburn 4: Jake Johansen allowed no runs in four innings on no hits and two walks, striking out four. In his first three starts, the Nationals first pick this year has allowed two hits and eight walks in 8 2/3 innings, striking out eight while allowing one earned run. Jimmy Yezzo went 2 for 5 with a double. Wilman Rodriguez went 2 for 3.

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