- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2012

As the words left his mouth, Ian Desmond didn’t expect what he was saying would take on the life it has.

“I’m up there, I’m ready to party,” the shortstop said in a postgame interview on MASN late in the spring after hitting the first pitch of the game for a home run.

The sentence epitomized not only his unconventional approach at leadoff “I think my days of going up there and trying to work a pitcher are over” but the type of aggressiveness Nationals manager Davey Johnson has preached to his team.

Through the first 11 games, Washington is second in the National League in pitches per plate appearance with 3.92. And yet it has the third-lowest percentage of looking strikes.

“You go up there and look for a pitch,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “And if you get your pitch, it doesn’t matter if it’s the first pitch, second pitch, whatever, if you feel it’s a pitch you can drive, swing. But you want to stay in your zone. You’re not just swinging to swing.”

By the same token, Johnson has urged the Nationals not to simply take just to take. Johnson is fond of retelling the story of how New York Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez, one of Johnson’s former players, asked him last year why the Nationals were letting so many first-pitch fastballs sail by. “We like to hit the breaking stuff,” Johnson told him, his words dripping with befuddled sarcasm.

This spring, Johnson took aside several players and told them to forget about this idea that a good at-bat involves seeing a high number of pitches. Patient aggressiveness, he preached. Be selective, but be ready. Pitchers will realize, he said, that they can’t zip Strike 1 right down the middle. They’ll be more careful, they’ll get behind in the count more often. By being aggressive and looking for hits and then getting them their on-base percentages will rise on their own.

“If you get something in your happy zone, hack at it,” Johnson said. “You may not get but one. I have no problem making an out on the first pitch.”

Desmond has swung at the first pitch 38 percent of the time, Espinosa 41 percent of the time. Desmond has the second-most hits in the NL (18), Espinosa the fourth-most walks (eight) and 4.02 pitches per plate appearance, though the hits have been somewhat scarce. Both have skyrocketing on-base percentages.

It’s early, but with the Nationals’ top two hitters fielding a lot of questions this spring about their OBPs and the need for them to rise hitting at the top of the lineup, Desmond’s .382 entering Tuesday is .078 points higher than his career OBP. Espinosa, at .333, is 0.17 points higher than his career mark.

Espinosa also has fouled off 38 percent of strikes he’s seen, the second-highest mark in the NL, a byproduct of zeroing his focus with two strikes.

“I think because I’m trying to focus in with two strikes, I think it’s helping me see the ball and whether it’s a bad pitch or not,” Espinosa said. “I’m focused on a part where I think the strike zone’s covered.”

The Nationals haven’t done as good a job as they could driving in runs, but at 8-3 entering Tuesday night’s game that’s not for lack of opportunity. Their first two hitters have reached base in 10 of the 11 games. Espinosa called it selective aggressiveness. Johnson called it being patiently aggressive. Desmond makes no apology for his approach. So far, it’s working.

“I can remember so many at-bats last year where I just gave the pitcher Strike 1,” Desmond said. “They give you three strikes for a reason. Why would I automatically put myself in a hole? That was just such a mistake by me last year.”