Ian Desmond’s path to his current position traces the same arc as the Washington Nationals. The Montreal Expos drafted him months before they relocated. He roared into professional existence — his general manager compared him to Derek Jeter after his first spring training game. Then he meandered through the wilderness for years, in the minor leagues and through two treacherous major league seasons, lost for good, some thought.
This year showed the wandering was not idle time, but preparation for the moment when everything came together. Desmond has been part of the Nationals’ future since before they had one, and finally it arrived for them both.
Earlier this month, Desmond was named to the National League all-star team. He pulled out of the game with an oblique injury he has felt since mid-June. Otherwise, he would have lined up next to the world’s best players and represented the team with the best record in the National League.
In his rookie season, Desmond committed 34 errors. Last year at the all-star break, he had a .264 on-base percentage. He is now a stabilizing defensive force, the nerve center of the Nationals’ infield. He is on pace to slug 30 homers and drive in nearly 100 runs. He is an all-star. It was not easy, but Desmond knows the game is not supposed to be easy.
“God gives you more than you can handle, because he needs you to rely on him,” Desmond said. “It’s the same in baseball. You’re going to get more than you can handle, because this is an elite league. The weak don’t survive.”
Desmond, 26, has always possessed raw talent and shown it in flashes. In his major league debut, he blasted a home run almost to the back wall in center field. Even as he booted routine grounders at shortstop, he made jaw-dropping stops.
“Not really knowing much about him, just watching him from afar, coming into town the last two or three years I always saw a player where the tools just oozed off of him,” said veteran Mark DeRosa, who’s in his first season with the Nationals. “He just hadn’t put the entire game together yet. When he did, watch out.”
Desmond began to show the potential for a breakout last year, when he hit .315 over the final quarter of the season. General Manager Mike Rizzo called the success in Desmond’s third full season “a natural progression as a player developing early in his career.”
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has watched every step of Desmond’s career for the past seven years. In 2010, when Desmond took over as the Nationals’ everyday shortstop as a rookie, he saw a player learning the game in the majors, for a franchise that had no better options.
“People were ready to ship him out and get rid of him, when a lot of people don’t even get to the big leagues, with his talent for his age,” Zimmerman said.
The consistency this year came, Desmond said, from a more consistent environment. In the first two seasons, he sometimes wondered whether he would play, how the organization felt about him and what he still needed to prove.
This year, he does not have to check the lineup card when he walks into the clubhouse. He knows he will be playing shortstop, batting fifth or sixth. In spring training, he asked for his own uniform number for the first time, and he took 20 in honor of former manager Frank Robinson.
“Confidence,” Zimmerman said, “is a scary thing.”
In spring training, Manager Davey Johnson and Rizzo both communicated to Desmond that he was their guy at shortstop. They “pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to run you out there every day,’ ” Desmond said. “ ‘You’re going to be an integral part of our offense and defense. Play the way that you know how to play, and that’s it. There’s no more audition here.’ ”
If Rizzo wanted to cut bait on Desmond, the league gave him ample opportunity. He fielded calls from several teams, including at last year’s trade deadline and over the winter, inquiring about Desmond’s availability. Rizzo never lowered a high asking price.
“He was a name that everybody bandied about,” Rizzo said. “A good, young athletic player. People figured that we would sell low on him, that type of thing. We were pretty stubborn in our evaluations. Nobody is untradeable. He was very close to being untradeable.”
Starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez has called Desmond “the leader of this team.” He studies everything — outfield arms, the positioning of the other defenders, how where he lines up affects what pitch the other bat expects to see. “He was like that when he was a 23-year-old shortstop — and a struggling 23-year-old shortstop,” Rizzo said.
“He’s a smart guy,” Zimmerman said. “He kind of notices these things a little bit more than other people. And then he has the confidence to say them.”
Desmond has grown more comfortable with the job this year. As a rookie, he wondered how others viewed him jogging to the mound to share information with pitchers. While he struggled at the plate, would teammates still listen?
“In the past, I felt like I hadn’t really earned that role,” Desmond said. “I would do it because that’s what my body was telling me to do. On the inside, I always second-guessed myself when I did it. I didn’t know if players were saying, ‘Why is this kid saying this? Why is this kid doing that? He hasn’t proven anything here.’ ”
Said Zimmerman: “Obviously, it’s a lot easier to do it now when you’re having a lot of success. I think the important thing for him is, he wasn’t afraid to do it even when he was struggling a little bit. If you stay the same from when you’re not doing well and you’re the same person when you’re doing, I think that means a lot to people. You don’t really get caught up in yourself.”
Desmond always had the talent, and now that he has harnessed it, he hasn’t changed.
“You can’t not like him,” DeRosa said. “He’s a guy’s guy. Nothing was handed to him. . . .
“The talent is off the charts. From a guy who’s been around a lot and watching how smoothly he plays the game — the Carlos Beltrans. Carlos is a great example of a guy who plays the game hard but makes it look like it’s a walk in the park. I see a lot of that in Desi. He’s got those tools. He can hit a ball 500 feet. He can play a premier position. He’s 6 foot 3. He’s got everything you’re looking for. It’s just a matter of putting it together. I think he’s just touching the surface.”
One day last week, Desmond sat in the Nationals’ dugout, taking a brief break from batting practice. He thought back to 2005, after the first exhibition game for the Nationals at RFK Stadium. He was 19 then, and he shared a conversation with Wil Cordero, a veteran on his way out. “Determination, perseverance and hard work are going to make you stay in the big leagues,” Cordero told him. Desmond wrote it in his phone, and he still has the note today.
He said it was too early to reflect on this year, with a half season still to come. He said he noticed and appreciated the crowds filling into Nationals Park. The first days at RFK Stadium seem so long ago.
“They see us playing better,” Desmond said. “We see them coming. We appreciate it. And here’s to the future.”