The Washington Nationals were quite popular among the baseball media during spring training, drawing postseason predictions from multiple prognosticators. Virtually everyone spoke highly of the Nats' rotation, bullpen, defense and core youngsters.
However, there was a nagging concern with a much-discussed, easy solution: The Nats needed a center fielder who, preferably, could bat leadoff. That was the team's Achilles' heel, a glaring weakness that general manager Mike Rizzo needed to address.
Shortstop Ian Desmond couldn't do anything about the outfield situation, but he could erase the notion of a hole atop the batting order. All he had to do was pick up where he left off last season. Or continue to take it up a notch, which he did in Thursday's home opener against Cincinnati.
Desmond went 3 for 5 with a run scored in the Nats' 3-2 victory. That improved his batting average to .406 on the season, with a .441 on-base percentage and a .563 slugging percentage.
"He's more than a table-setter," manager Davey Johnson said before the game. "He's a run producer. ... I think he's getting more comfortable in who he is and what his job description is. That's fun to watch."
Johnson's role in his shortstop's comfort level cannot be overstated. Desmond ranked among baseball's least productive hitters during the first half of last season. Then-manager Jim Riggleman put him at leadoff for 11 of the Nats' first 12 games, and Desmond didn't return to the top spot until four months later. Johnson said the change was permanent, and Desmond has been on a tear ever since.
"It's just about the freedom for me to play my game," he said. "I know I'm going to get four or five at-bats every day, which gives me the opportunity to get some hits."
Desmond led off in all but two of his final 41 games, compiling a .305 batting average, .342 on-base percentage and .437 slugging percentage. Extrapolated over an entire season, those numbers would put him among the game's elite leadoff men. That on-base plus slugging (.779) is just a hair below the career mark of All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes (.781).
But Desmond isn't your prototypical leadoff hitter, one reason his suitability has been questioned. Patience isn't one of his virtues. He strikes out too much and walks too infrequently for traditionalists' liking. He's more likely to swing at the first pitch than to work deep into the count. That would irk some managers but not Johnson, who says "if you get something in your happy zone, hack at it."
He doesn't have to tell Desmond twice.
"By no means am I up there trying to draw a walk," he said. "I'm trying to get mine from the first pitch to the last pitch. The walks will come if I'm getting hits. Pitchers are going to make mistakes and walk me, but when I'm up there I'm trying to get a hit."
Beginning his third season in the majors, Desmond has found himself. He's no longer trying out different approaches and techniques, worried every day about producing and protecting his roster spot. Johnson straightened him out toward the end of last season, and they worked through some changes Desmond wanted to incorporate during spring training.
Now we're seeing the player that Johnson says was there all along.
"Young players are always trying to think of things to become better," he said. "We got by that, and he's playing like Ian Desmond, who to me is a very talented offensive and defensive player. If he just holds that pattern and expresses his talent, he's going to be fine."
Does this mean the Nats don't need to bring in a leadoff hitter? "They can go get who they want," Desmond said. "I'm just going to worry about me."
In doing so, he's not leaving much for anyone else to worry about.
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