CHICAGO — For seven innings Thursday afternoon, the worst fears of the Washington Nationals were realized. Opening Day, their ace Stephen Strasburg on the mound and one hit on the board.
For seven innings, they battled the 18-mph gusts of wind coming off Lake Michigan that stole at least two home runs from Ryan Zimmerman, the raucous Opening Day crowd at sun-drenched Wrigley Field and Ryan Dempster. All, that is, except shortstop Ian Desmond.
And when it was over, when the Nationals' first victory of a much-anticipated 2012 season was in the books, they'd done it with just two runs. In a 2-1 victory, Desmond scored the first and drove in the other.
"That's Ian Desmond," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "He did everything I was looking for today."
For six weeks in spring training, Johnson fielded questions about Desmond. His track record didn't make him an ideal leadoff hitter. His on-base percentage was well below that of the best offensive catalysts at the top of the lineup. A run-producing leadoff hitter, Johnson called him, and essentially deemed the rest hogwash. Play to your capabilities, he told him, and the numbers will follow.
So while his teammates were striking out 10 times against Dempster in 7 2/3 innings, it was Desmond's one-out single and the threat of Zimmerman at the plate that forced the Cubs to turn to Kerry Wood. It was Desmond stealing second with Zimmerman at the plate that cleared the way for Wood to walk Zimmerman - and then lose the strike zone almost completely.
The chants and cheers rained down on Wood, pleading for him to throw a strike. Dempster had made it look so easy for seven innings, neutralizing a superb effort from Strasburg and putting the Nationals in position to ruminate over a wasted opportunity until Saturday.
Adam LaRoche had struck out three times. Jayson Werth once. Both were hitless and had left five men on base. The Nationals' putrid run support of their ace played perfectly to the fears of those who criticized their offense this season. All Wood had to do was throw a strike - to LaRoche or Werth in 3-2 counts - and the Cubs would have been a half-inning away from singing their way onto Waveland Avenue.
"It seemed like a playoff game," LaRoche said, the tension seemingly rising with each pitch up and in, or out past the edge of the strike zone.
"Watching from the dugout, you almost feel like you're in the box with them," Strasburg said.
Wood walked LaRoche. He loaded the bases. He walked Werth. Tie game.
One inning later, the man who'd ridden every bus in Florida, who'd spent a year in Japan wondering if he'd find his way back to the majors, hit the only ball in the air that meant anything.
Chad Tracy, one of the last position players to make the Nationals' roster, was trying to hit a ground ball or a line drive. "Don't get it in the air," he told himself as closer Carlos Marmol worked. That plan changed when Marmol threw him a 2-2 slider that he barreled up and sent into the ivy in right field. Two pitches later, Desmond dropped the game-winning single into right field.
And in a ninth inning that wasn't without drama following a one-out triple, Brad Lidge collected his second save since Sept. 24, 2010.
"If you didn't like that ballgame, you don't like baseball," Johnson said. "Every pitch meant something."
Desmond started the 2011 season 1 for 18 - a tailspin, compounded by injury, that he never fully worked out of until mid-August. His heroics Thursday may be magnified because of the stage on which they happened, but their significance wasn't overlooked, either.
"All I'm taking away from last year [is the final month] and Desi played great," Werth said. "That's the type of player he is. ... We're going to need him if we're going to be a successful team. You need a leadoff guy to set the tone, to get on base, to be aggressive, and I think Ian Desmond is that guy."
A run-producing leadoff hitter, just as his manager said.
"We've been waiting for this all offseason," Desmond said. "It finally came."
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