In many ways, the Nationals’ wild first half was a blur. Three and a half months of injuries and slumps seemed to fly by. That, however, “depends on who you ask,” Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said with a wry smile after Sunday’s game.
The first act of Desmond’s season, likely his last in a Nationals uniform, has been a rough one. After a three-year stretch in which he was the most valuable shortstop in baseball, Desmond has been among the least productive this season. His .589 OPS is second-worst among qualified major league shortstops, better than only Alexei Ramirez’s .541.
Desmond’s approach at the plate, his future and mindset have been all dissected. He switched his gloves and settled into a better groove in the field after a bumbling start. He tweaked his mechanics and tried to improve his plan at the plate. The four-day break this week with his wife and three kids in Sarasota could help ease the pressure.
“No one has ever complained about the all-star break,” Desmond said. “It’s good to get home and spend some time with the kids. They’re growing up fast and want their dad around. So I’ll go home and play with them for a while and recharge the batteries.”
The Nationals need a re-energized Desmond for the second half. Despite his struggles, the banged-up Nationals have still managed to reach first place and stay there. He seems to draw the ire of fans not only because of his woes but because of the failed long-term extension negotiations and the performances of the Nationals’ other shortstop options (resurgent Danny Espinosa and quickly rising prospect Trea Turner). But Desmond’s previous three seasons won’t be easily erased by a rough three and a half months in the eyes of the man in charge.
“I expect him to be Ian Desmond,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said this weekend. “He’s our shortstop, he’s gonna be our shortstop. He’s a leader of the ballclub. He’s a three-time Silver Slugger that we think he’s going to be Ian Desmond in the second half. He’s got a great attitude, a great work ethic. For a guy who has struggled like he has, he still comes to the ballpark with a smile every day and a bounce in his step. The one thing that he gives, not only Matt Williams but me, is that he plays every day. We know who our shortstop is every given day and that’s an important component to his skillset.”
The Nationals should be improved in the second half thanks to sheer health. The load carried by the healthy everyday players — Desmond, Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos — and the bench should be lessened when Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman return.
The Nationals believe in Desmond and his track record. But the second half will be important for him to prove he can made the necessary adjustments. Should anything go awry, the Nationals have Espinosa to help at shortstop if needed. Desmond has earned leeway because of his past work. The Nationals believe his talent will take over again.
“He’s a proven player,” Rizzo said. “You know, I always look at the back of the baseball cards and figure out what kind of player they’re going to be. I think that you see what Desi’s numbers are now, what they should be and I see him ascending to reach those numbers in the second half.”