The rest of the country missed its chance this summer to meet Ian Desmond. An oblique injury sidelined him from the All-Star Game, and so he never stepped onto the national stage. The baseball world never got to watch him corral grounders other shortstops would watch roll into the outfield, to see him spray line drives across the diamond, to witness Desmond’s years of toil give way to rare athletic gifts that make him, after eight professional seasons, maybe the crucial player on the Washington Nationals.
Baseball fans have the chance now, with the Nationals in the playoffs, tied 1-1 with the St. Louis Cardinals as the National League Division Series shifts to Nationals Park on Wednesday afternoon. In his first two playoff games, Desmond has shown the full spectrum of his considerable skill. He has four hits, has scored two runs and played dazzling defense.
So far, he has had a great series. “No,” third base coach Bo Porter said. “A great year.”
In a two-game snapshot, Desmond has managed to distill his impact on the Nationals’ season in their postseason.
“I think he is the one that has made us become this team,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He was kind of the missing piece, that young guy that needed to mature and needed to become that superstar player — or maybe not a superstar, but that relevant player on our team. We needed someone else, without going and spending $100 million. And Desi has finally taken that step this year.”
Finally. Desmond this year became one of the best shortstops in the majors — his 5.4 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs.com, ranked first in the big leagues. “It’s cool now,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said, “because people can see what he’s been doing all year.”
On Sunday, Desmond laced three hits and scored the game-winning run. On Monday, he ripped a single, alertly dashed home through Porter’s stop sign as the outfielder held the ball, and made an eye-popping, backhanded dive and an off-balance throw for an out. In the NLDS, he has played like the best player on the field.
“He’s an unbelievable talent, one of the more talented guys I’ve ever played with,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “He’s so calm, you think that he’s been playing this game for 10 years in the big leagues. He never gets too excited or too down on himself.”
It may seem that way now, but Desmond did not always exude calm and confidence. In 2004, after the Montreal Expos drafted Desmond out of Sarasota (Fla.) High, current Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr managed him at Class A Savannah.
“Big leaguer,” Knorr said. “Right away.”
Desmond did not always believe that himself. That first year, he hit .228 and made 30 errors in 59 games. After a bad game, he would sulk in front of his locker, the last one in the clubhouse. Knorr would walk by and tell him to keep playing hard, that he would play in the majors someday.
“He gave me that look like, ‘You’re so full of [nonsense],’ ” Knorr said. “I remember that.”
Desmond credited his slow rise as the reason for his early postseason success. He took mistakes hard, but he learned from them. In Game 1 against the Cardinals, he threw out a runner at the plate with a strong, smooth throw. As he fielded the ball, he remembered a similar play last month in Atlanta, when he rushed a throw and allowed the winning run to score.
“I thought about what had happened in the past,” Desmond said. “It was a little bit different play, a little more bang-bang. But I knew I needed to keep myself under control and deliver a strike.”
His past offered constant lessons. He was only briefly a dominant minor league player. Aside from 2009, when he played 97 games in an injury-shortened year, Desmond never hit better than .264 or more than 13 homers in a minor league season. He never slugged better than .511, his total this season.
“He would have good days and bad days at the plate,” said left-hander Ross Detwiler, who played with Desmond at several minor league levels. “You could really see him being a great player at one point, and then he’d make a few mistakes or strike out. It’s funny how it just all came together at once.”
Once he reached the majors, taking over as the Nationals’ shortstop after his breakout 2009, Desmond took two seasons to adapt. In his rookie year, he led the league with 34 errors. Midway through 2011, he had a .256 on-base percentage.
As Desmond struggled, opposing teams tried to tempt the Nationals into trading him. From the start, General Manager Mike Rizzo considered Desmond part of the franchise’s core. Rizzo saw elite tools and, most important, a strong character that would allow Desmond to eventually turn his crude ability into a polished, star-caliber shortstop.
“I never one time considered trading him at all,” Rizzo said. “To me, he was one of the untouchable guys that we had. Athletic players up the middle are too valuable to the franchise. But he was sought after, especially when teams were trying to buy low. We knew what we had.”
Scouts and executives around the league thought the Nationals should convert Desmond into an outfielder. His shaky fielding, they reasoned, would be neutralized if he could use his athleticism in the open spaces of center field. Internally, some Nationals officials broached making Desmond an outfielder. Manager Davey Johnson abhorred the idea, and the discussions stopped when Rizzo became involved.
“It never went through my head,” Rizzo said. “It went through people in our organization’s head. It never went through my head.”
The payoff has been this season, and likely in the seasons to come. In Desmond, the Nationals have a bedrock leader, an electric shortstop and a potent middle-of-the-order hitter. The odd thing is, Desmond may never have enjoyed more success on a baseball field as a professional, even in the minors. On the eve of Game 3, he paused to consider that notion.
“I think that’s not really for now,” Desmond said. “Maybe at the end of the season, I’ll answer that question.”
Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.