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Ian Desmond's mere presence qualifies as bright spot for Nationals

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; D07

In the first inning of the first game of his first season as an everyday major league shortstop, on the very first ground ball hit to him, Ian Desmond glided to his left -- and booted it away, an error. An inning later, in the first at-bat of his first big league opening day, Desmond dug in against Roy Halladay -- and was blown away on four sinister pitches.

And so, Desmond, the Washington Nationals' 24-year-old shortstop, had much the same experience as any of his teammates, on a day when not much went according to the glorious script suggested by a perfect afternoon and a presidential first pitch at Nationals Park. By the end of the day, Desmond was parked on the bench, with veteran Cristian Guzmán manning shortstop, and the Philadelphia Phillies were celebrating an 11-1 victory.

But take a step back from Monday's gruesome proceedings -- which, after all, amounted to only one loss in a 162-game season -- and from the NL East standings that now find the Nationals in their customary spot at the bottom.

The most significant thing that happened for the Nationals on Monday was the simple act of Desmond jogging out to shortstop for the top of the first inning -- because of what it represents for the franchise's big picture: A major victory for a much-maligned player-development system. A homegrown, potential cornerstone player at a premium position.

"It's a milestone for our franchise," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. "If you want to be good for a long time, you have to draft and develop players for the long term. You can only go out and sign so many free agents. So to be able to have Ian come through the system, and to see him here from ground zero, is pretty cool."

For much of the past two seasons, Zimmerman, the team's first-round draft pick in 2005, was the only homegrown position player in the Nationals' lineup. On Monday, though, he was joined not only by Desmond, a 2004 third-rounder, but also starting pitcher John Lannan (11th round, 2005), who was making his second straight opening day start.

"That's a very significant building block for us," Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said before the game. "The fact we've produced another everyday position player helps. And I think especially in the second half of the season, you're going to see a more homegrown type of team in general."

At some point this season, or early in 2011, the Nationals could field a lineup with a homegrown right fielder (Justin Maxwell) and a homegrown second baseman (Danny Espinosa -- yes, he's a shortstop, but either he or Desmond could shift to second), plus a pitching staff with a homegrown ace (Stephen Strasburg) and closer (Drew Storen).

For a demonstration as to why a homegrown core is important, Nationals fans need look no further than the opposing dugout Monday. The core of the Phillies' late-2000s mini-dynasty -- which has produced three straight NL East titles, two straight pennants and the 2008 World Series championship -- is homegrown, with four-fifths of its starting infield produced by its own scouting and player-development system: catcher Carlos Ruiz, first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

And besides, Monday wasn't all E-6s and swinging K's for Desmond. He made a nifty play on a grounder up the middle for a force out. He worked Halladay for a walk, one of only two the big right-hander allowed, in the fifth. The fact that he was benched for the last couple of innings was more a function of the Nationals not knowing exactly what to do with Guzmán (and his $8 million salary) than anything.

"This is what I've been dreaming of my whole life," Desmond said. "I wanted to be a big league baseball player. I wanted to be a starting shortstop for a major league ballclub. And that's what happened today. . . . I see a brighter future ahead."

If that brighter future really is out there -- and after Monday it seemed just as difficult to envision as ever -- it got a little closer the minute Desmond stepped into the sunshine and dug his spikes into the infield dirt.

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