ATLANTA — A year ago, the three Washington Nationals who were named to the National League all-star roster on Sunday were in much different places in their baseball careers. Shortstop Ian Desmond was hitting .224 playing every day for the Nationals. Stephen Strasburg was just starting to throw curveballs again as he rehabbed from elbow surgery in Viera, Fla. And Gio Gonzalez was taking the mound for another team, the Oakland Athletics.
Since, each player has blossomed or developed into the player he was expected to be. And on Sunday, they were rewarded for their performances, which have helped turn the Nationals around this season.
Before Sunday, the Nationals never had more than two players selected to the major league All-Star Game. Now, they may even have four players go to the July 10 game in Kansas City, with rookie Bryce Harper on the five-man ballot for the final NL spot decided by online fan votes.
“Times are changing around here,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, an all-star in 2009. “Before, we had one guy a year because we had to.”
Desmond, a first-time all-star, has emerged as one of the most complete shortstops in the league, enjoying a career season at the plate. Strasburg, also selected for the first time, regained his pre-injury form, and became an elite starting pitcher. Gonzalez continued his development as a top starter, earning his second straight all-star bid. Harper, in his limited time, has become one of the most exciting players in the game.
“It means that we’re winning,” Strasburg said. “Typically the team in last place only gets one guy.”
The selection marks a full circle return for Strasburg, 23. After being selected first overall by the Nationals in 2009 as one of the generation’s best pitching prospects, Strasburg’s dazzling start with the Nationals in 2010 was cut short by an elbow injury. The subsequent Tommy John surgery and rehabilitation knocked him out for more than a year, and he made only a handful of starts last season.
This season, Strasburg has been among the game’s best. He leads the majors with 122 strikeouts and sports a 2.81 ERA, and opponents are hitting only .217 against him. Despite an innings limit this season, the Nationals have said Strasburg will be allowed to pitch in the All-Star Game if his schedule lines up.
“It’s amazing to think where I was a year ago,” Strasburg said. “It’s great to see that all the hard work has all paid off.”
Gonzalez, 26, has been a valuable addition atop the starting rotation and among the game’s best left-handed starters. The Nationals traded for Gonzalez last December, sending four of their best prospects to the Oakland Athletics for their all-star. He has struck out 112 batters and held hitters to a .195 batting average. His fastball and knee-buckling curveball have propelled him to an 11-3 record and a 3.01 ERA.
Strasburg and Gonzalez have been a major reason for the Nationals’ success this season and the backbone of the majors’ best pitching staff. In games started by either pitcher, the team has a 25-7 record. Both were selected by player ballot and finished third and fourth, respectively, among NL starters.
“It feels like we all did something big today,” Gonzalez said.
Tony La Russa, the manager of the NL team who has long loved Desmond’s play, selected the shortstop as an all-star reserve. Desmond, 26, has been the constant in an injured and slumping Nationals lineup. He is among the longest-serving Nationals, in the organization since he was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 2004. He made his major league debut in 2009 and struggled. Now, in his third full season in the majors, he has developed into one of the best shortstops in the NL.
Among NL shortstops, he ranks fourth in hitting (.276), first in slugging (.484), second in home runs (13) and first in runs batted in (43). He is also a team leader, a caring teammate and capable of not just the routine defensive plays but the difficult ones. Johnson, who has helped Desmond blossom this season, sought out Desmond first on Sunday to congratulate him.
“Being homegrown is obviously something that I don’t take lightly,” Desmond said. “It’s something that I hope I can have the opportunity to stay here my whole career and this, I guess, is a thanks to them. They put in a lot of work with me, as far as minor league coaches and staff, and stuck with me when I was up in the big leagues and, in a sense, struggling.”
Harper has been an electrifying addition to the Nationals’ roster with his hustle and big-play knack since he was debuted on April 28. Despite a recent slump at the plate, the rookie has put up strong numbers — more impressive given he is 19. He is hitting .274 with eight home runs. He has played in all but one of his team’s 58 games since his call-up.
Harper is up against four other players, but none may be tougher competition than Atlanta’s Chipper Jones, 40, who is retiring after this season. Johnson said he hoped fans would vote Harper in but wanted his rookie outfielder to rest and nurse his back.
Harper said he would like to attend the game but voiced his support for Jones. “I think a Hall of Famer should be able to go to the all-star game his last year,” he said. “If I was going to make a vote, I’d go vote for Chip.”
If Harper were selected by Thursday’s voting deadline, the Nationals would be tied for the most all-stars among NL teams with San Francisco and St. Louis. But with three selections, the Nationals are already being rewarded for their banner season.
“We’re going to be together for a while and, you know, hopefully this isn’t the last one,” Desmond said.