By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009
Nothing in baseball says "there is still hope" quite so loudly as the September debut of a fresh-faced kid with a future, the dirt of a couple dozen minor league fields still coating his glove, the spring still in his step despite the late date. Watch him strut around the clubhouse. Look at him zip around the diamond. Get about six more just like him, and maybe you've got something -- yes, even the Washington Nationals.
That was shortstop Ian Desmond on Thursday night, those fresh legs exploding through a hanging curve, then propelling him around the bases as if the ball that just left the park in the fifth inning was rattling around in the corner -- and still having enough left in reserve to push him up the dugout stairs for a curtain call a moment later. That was hope.
At a time on the calendar when the Nationals were craving one measly win, as well as any reminder that all the losses might one day be worth it, they got both. In his major league debut, Desmond doubled, homered and drove in four runs in the Nationals' harrowing 8-7 win over the Philadelphia Phillies -- one that didn't enter the books until they survived a gruesome ninth inning in which the Phillies scored five times and put the go-ahead runs on base.
When veteran lefty Ron Villone coaxed a double-play grounder into an over-shifted infield from Phillies slugger Ryan Howard to stop the bleeding, it was Desmond who turned a nifty pivot at the second base bag, throwing out the lumbering Howard by a step.
"The ball was crystal clear. The lights -- everything was crystal clear," Desmond said after the game, traces of the traditional postgame shaving-cream pie still dangling like ivory earrings from his earlobes. "It felt great."
Desmond's fifth-inning homer, a three-run blast that ended the night of Phillies starter Joe Blanton, sailed all the way to the back row of the Red Porch in left-center. By the time it came down, Desmond was already nearing second base, finally easing off the accelerator when he realized it had left the yard -- or perhaps when it dawned on him that he looked like what he was: an overexcited rookie who had just struck his first big league homer.
After touching home plate, he nearly broke three arms -- those of the on-deck hitter and the two base runners who proceeded him home -- with emphatic high-fives. A standing ovation from the announced crowd of 18,706 grew in intensity as the Phillies made their pitching change, until Desmond, goaded by his teammates, bounded up the steps and waved.
"I'd never had anything like that happen before," Desmond said of the curtain call. "I didn't know if they were serious."
Even when Desmond was making outs, they were bombs to the warning track. Even when he was making an error, sailing a throw nearly into the first base stands, it spoke of the power in his arm. Even when he was getting thrown out at home plate -- as he did in the fourth, when he doubled for his first big league hit and RBI, then made an ill-advised dash home from second base on a sacrifice bunt -- it oozed energy and life.
One win, of course, was not enough to turn around the Nationals' awful fate, especially when it featured reliever Zack Segovia turning an 8-2 ninth-inning lead into an 8-6 lead by giving up a grand slam to Phillies pinch hitter Matt Stairs, who was 0 for his last 30 entering the at-bat. By holding on, though, the Nationals notched just their second win in their past 12 games and their third against the defending World Series champs in 15 tries this season.
"We certainly didn't want that kind of finish after we had had so many great at-bats to get the lead," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "But that's the Phillies. That's the lineup they have."
And similarly, one game, brilliant though it may have been, is not enough to add Desmond's name to the list of future cornerstones the Nationals have added to their collection over the past five sometimes brutal months -- a list that would appear to include center fielder Nyjer Morgan and pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, both currently injured. But unlike with most of the retreads and journeymen the Nationals have been parading through Washington this summer, there is at least that possibility.
A .330 hitter this year in the minors, Desmond, who turns 24 later this month, still has to deal with the presence of veteran shortstop Cristian Guzmán, who is signed through 2010.
But these days, the future is very much on the minds of the Nationals, even a 34-year-old scrapheap find like Liván Hernández, who pitched 7 1/3 excellent innings Thursday night and afterward reiterated his desire to return in 2010. The future, clearly, is also on the mind of Riggleman who before the game, largely unprompted, made an impassioned plea to the team's fans (and perhaps indirectly, their owners) to view progress in terms of development, instead of wins and losses.
"We owe these fans here some wins in the near future, and it's going to happen," Riggleman said. "[But] right now, we have to measure some of our progress on something other than the final score of the game some nights."
On Thursday night, progress was measured by the arrival of a shortstop with a future. And for a change, the final score wasn't something for the Nationals to talk around.
Nationals Notes: Top pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg, who spent the past week with the team, was preparing to head to Viera, Fla., to begin preparations for the start on Wednesday of the fall instructional league.
"It's been fun being up here," said Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft. "I'm just here to get my work in, but it's still cool to be around here and see how they go about their business." . . .
The Nationals made a 40-man roster move before the game, claiming minor league lefty Jesse English from the San Francisco Giants and, to make room, designating minor league catcher Luke Montz for assignment.
English, 24, went 7-7 with a 4.20 ERA for the Giants' Class AA affiliate this season.