Ian Desmond’s breakout season draws praise

Shortstop’s attributes were on display in Game 1 of NLDS

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ST. LOUIS — In the corner of the press box stood a familiar face. It was the face of a man brought to the brink of tears in June 2011 as he said his farewell to the Washington Nationals. The face of a man who’d helped steward the Washington Nationals through a turbulent time — from Jim Riggleman to Davey Johnson — in one wild weekend in Chicago.

And he couldn’t have been more excited to talk about the performance of shortstop Ian Desmond.

Onetime interim manager John McLaren, scouting the Nationals for the Oakland Athletics this series in advance of a possible World Series matchup, watched the Nationals from afar this season. When Desmond was named to the All-Star team, McLaren was overcome with emotion for his former pupil.

“I was probably happier than he was,” McLaren said.

It was no surprise to him, then, that Desmond was perhaps the player who seemed most unflappable in his first playoff game.

“He’s kind of proven that all year,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I don’t know that he lets the game or the circumstances dictate the way he plays. … He’s been fun to watch from last year, and how much he’s evolved into a really good all-around ballplayer. And I don’t know that he’s scratched the surface yet.”

Desmond was 3 for 4 for the Nationals on Sunday. He scored the game-winning run on Tyler Moore’s soft single to right field and helped make Ryan Mattheus’ two-pitch, three-out inning a reality with a strong, controlled throw to force out Jon Jay at home plate for the inning’s first out.

The play was reminiscent of one Desmond had been unable to make in September, in a game against the Atlanta Braves, with Andrelton Simmons running from third base.

Desmond’s throw then was wide of home plate and Simmons scored, giving the Braves a walk-off win. But his throw Sunday was controlled and on-target — and it was far more important.

Ian Desmond is one heck of a player,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “For me, I mean, I would have to vote for Adam LaRoche to be the MVP, but it’s a toss-up with Ian Desmond. The things he’s done, got a lot of big hits, gifted defensively. He’s been outstanding. I can’t say enough about Ian.”

As Johnson spoke, Desmond entered the news conference room early, awaiting his turn at the podium. Desmond, who batted .292 with 25 home runs this season, looked up at his manager, the 69-year-old who helped instill confidence in him.

Johnson found the gaze of Desmond, the pride evident for a man who says often how much he enjoys seeing players reach their potential.

“I think that there’s no secret on what I’m trying to do up there,” Desmond said. “I’m not trying to surprise anybody. I’m not trying to do any tricks or anything like that. I’m going up there trying to get a good pitch to hit and hitting it.

“If I can control my heartbeat, I don’t feel that these games are any different than the rest of them.”

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