From his spot on the infield, Adam LaRoche on Friday night read Scott Rolen’s ground ball deep into the hole on the left side and moved to cover first base. He did it because it’s what he’s supposed to do in that situation, but the Washington Nationals’ first baseman figured the chances of him needing to be there would be slim.
“That’s one where he’s going to throw it, it’s going to be a rainbow and it’s never going to get there,” LaRoche said.
But then Ian Desmond fielded the ball.
His body was moving to his right, momentum carrying him toward the outfield, and he unleashed a rocket to first base that reached LaRoche, who aided the play with a scoop, on one hop.
It would have been impressive if Desmond hadn’t done almost the exact same thing Tuesday night in New York with a throw that was perhaps farther and stronger. “Unbelievable,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman called it. MLB Network made it its top play. Nationals manager Davey Johnson compared Desmond’s arm to that of his former teammate and roommate — and Hall of Famer — Louis Aparicio.
“Desi’s one of the most athletic shortstops in the game,” Zimmerman said. “He can make some plays that I watch and … it’s just fun for me to be that close and watch him play.”
Friday, each member of the Nationals’ infield made a play against the Cincinnati Reds that elicited a similar reaction from their infield mates. Two batters later, Zimmerman ranged to his left to make a similarly exceptional play on Ryan Ludwick. And two innings later, Danny Espinosa snared a screaming liner by Rolen midway between first and second base, landed, and rifled a throw back to LaRoche to double off Joey Votto.
“I’ve never had an infield this talented,” Johnson said. “It’s that simple.”
“I’ve had Hall of Famers at different positions,” he added. “But as a group, I’ve never had an infield that has four guys that can do the things that these guys can. And that’s saying a lot.”
Defense and fundamentals haven’t always been a strong suit for the Nationals. But they started with Zimmerman, their cornerstone, and worked their way around the infield to get the unit they have now. In the past Desmond might have rushed the plays he’s made lately. He might have attacked the play more than he should, instead of allowing it to come to him and let his ability take over. Maybe in the past the second baseman wouldn’t have an arm like Espinosa’s, a natural shortstop, and they wouldn’t all be throwing it to LaRoche, a guy Johnson wondered Saturday how many errors he’s already saved this season.
Zimmerman has seen the Nationals’ defense evolve. In 2009, they had the worst unit in the major leagues and committed a National League-high 143 errors. This is different.
“I think we’ll put our infield up with just about anyone in the big leagues right now,” Zimmerman said. “Adam obviously being healthy, he’s one of the best. And those two guys up the middle are about as athletic and versatile as you can get. It’s a fun infield to be a part of.”
“I’ve been around a lot of good infields, but there’s no question in my mind [this is the most talented],” Johnson said. “And then, when you even throw in the whole package, it even makes it more special when you put in the offense and defense capabilities.”