In his second season, Ian Desmond is taking nothing for granted

Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond (6) throws to first to complete a double play against the Mets as second baseman Danny Espinosa looks on in a game last September. Desmond is focused on filling a bigger role for the team this season after an up and down rookie year.
Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond (6) throws to first to complete a double play against the Mets as second baseman Danny Espinosa looks on in a game last September. Desmond is focused on filling a bigger role for the team this season after an up and down rookie year. (Evan Vucci/associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 11:33 PM

VIERA, FLA. - After baseball tryouts his senior year at Sarasota High School, Ian Desmond scanned the sheet of paper his coach had tacked onto a bulletin board. Months later, when the Montreal Expos drafted him in the third round, he would secure his status as one of the most sought after amateur players in the nation. But on this day Desmond took nothing for granted. He wanted to know if he had made the team.

This spring, following a rookie season that entrenched him as the Washington Nationals' shortstop, Desmond still takes nothing for granted. One year after he claimed the position, the Nationals are counting on Desmond. They have chosen him to man the middle of their retooled defense, promoted him as a clubhouse leader. Surely, on some level, Desmond knows this. Outwardly, he has convinced himself otherwise.

"I don't think I know that I made the team yet," Desmond said Tuesday afternoon. "Until the end of spring training, you never know. I don't think anything is written in stone. That's just the way I am. I don't have any guarantees. There's no guarantees in this game."

"I mean, I'm not looking for apartments in Syracuse," he added. "But we have a good team. This is something different than we've had in the past. I feel I have a good chance to make the team. I feel like I did good things last year. I don't think anything is guaranteed."

While Desmond's rookie year did not provide him a sense of security, he now knows what to expect from the grind of a full major league season. Before last year, because of hand injuries, Desmond had not played more than 118 games - majors or minors - in a season since 2007. Desmond shed 10 pounds over the course of last season. He did not feel tired at the end of last season, but he believes he could have been stronger.

He applied the lesson to his offseason preparation. For six weeks this winter, starting in January, Desmond trained at the IMG Academy in Bradenton. He fielded groundballs and took batting practice from 9 to 11 each morning and lifted weights four times a week. He injected purpose into each workout.

"It was very obvious, not only to the coaching staff but also to the players that were working around him, that he was out there completely focused," said Ken Bolek, IMG's baseball academy director. "In Ian's case, from the very first day he walked in, he was serious about his time each day."

Desmond worked closely with performance specialist Blaine Bott, whom he first met in 2006, when Bott worked as a trainer for the Class A Potomac Nationals. Bott outlined a plan for Desmond to lift more weights during the year, maintenance work with the intention to keep weight on and keep him fresh.

His strength and speed were not a problem. "Biomechanically," Bott said, "he's so athletic." So Bott focused on improving Desmond's flexibility. Between weightlifting sets, Desmond would strike yoga poses meant to stretch his hamstrings and hip flexors. The enhanced flexibility should help prevent injury and make it easier for Desmond to stay down while fielding groundballs.

"I spent a lot of time stretching, trying to make sure I'm stronger from the middle out," Desmond said. "In the past, it's always been about how you look when you come to spring training. I don't care how I look. This year, I feel like I'm built for go."

Desmond also concentrated on his mind-set. He wrote down goals for this season on a sheet of paper, and he would talk about them a few times a week with a mental conditioning coach. On Tuesday, he chose not to share those goals. "I guess in October I'll let you know if I reached them or not," Desmond said. "It's personal. I want to be better than I was last year, put it that way."

Last season included ups and downs for Desmond. Advanced metrics judged him as an above-average defender because of outstanding range, but he led the major leagues with 34 errors. Players typically slash their error total more between their first and second seasons than at any other juncture, but the Nationals will be satisfied as long as Desmond maintains his other strengths.

"I really want Desmond to just go do what he does," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "I love the way he plays. I want him to continue to do that. I want him to play with that energy that he plays with, that fierce competitiveness that he plays with."

Desmond will try to ignore his enhanced stature, but it's hard not to notice. He remembers the days when the team tucked his locker in the corner of the Space Coast Stadium clubhouse devoted to rookies. "You never knew if your locker was going to be packed up or not," Desmond said. This spring, his locker is separated from the other end by just four players: Ivan Rodriguez, Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman.

"He definitely has a different concentration than last year," Bott said. "Now that he knows his role, that helps him prepare for this year."

Said Desmond: "Now it's time to just put it all to the test. It feels really good to come in 100 percent. It really does feel good to know there's nothing holding me back this year."

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