- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

The Washington Nationals drafted Ian Desmond when they weren’t the Washington Nationals. The 23-year-old shortstop can recall things former manager Frank Robinson said to him in spring training. He played with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman at Class A Savannah in 2005, a long-lost outpost of the Nationals’ farm system.

All this is an anecdotal way of getting to the fact that Desmond has been a prospect for a very long time, hovering on the edge of turning potential into production, only to stay suspended there while players drafted after him went racing by.

But on Thursday night, five years after the Nationals drafted him, Desmond smashed his way through the glass ceiling.

With a two-hit, four-RBI performance, including a three-run homer that keyed an 8-7 Nationals win over the Philadelphia Phillies on a misty night at Nationals Park, Desmond showed why he’s still very much a factor in the team’s future. He became the fifth player in franchise history to homer in his major league debut and broke Coco Laboy’s 40-year-old franchise record for most RBI in a debut.

“I was seeing the ball crystal-clear,” Desmond said. “Everything was just so clear. It felt good.”

His status shrank in 2006 when he fared poorly at Class A Potomac and even worse at Class AA Harrisburg. It stagnated in 2007 with another mediocre season at Harrisburg, and in 2008, when Desmond broke his hamate bone in his left hand, he was on the verge of falling off the Nationals’ radar altogether.

But something changed this season. Desmond forced himself back into the Nationals’ plans, becoming such an integral piece at Harrisburg that Nationals bench coach Pat Corrales, while scouting the minors earlier this year, raved that the team was different with Desmond on the field. He continued the tear at Class AAA Syracuse, making a September call-up an inevitability.

A day after interim manager Jim Riggleman said he would prefer to stick with veterans during September, Desmond might have earned himself more than a courtesy start.

“A tremendous performance,” Riggleman said. “There’s no way I can explain how great a ballgame he had. He’s a talented guy. He’ll do that, and we saw him exhibit it in a lot of ways tonight.”

It was evident early that Desmond was ready to go. He shot a fly ball to deep center off Phillies starter Joe Blanton in his first at-bat. His first hit came in the fourth inning, when he stung another Blanton pitch to center for a RBI double.

The big blast came in the fifth inning with Washington up 5-2 after Adam Dunn’s 36th homer of the year.

Blanton hung a first-pitch curveball, and Desmond jumped on it as authoritatively as anything he hit all night. It sailed over the Phillies’ bullpen, putting Washington up 8-2 and sending the crowd of 18,706 clamoring for a curtain call.

“I’d never had anything like that happen before,” Desmond said. “I didn’t know if they were being serious or not. I didn’t want to look like a dummy.”

There were other standout performances besides Desmond’s. Livan Hernandez, after allowing two runs in the first inning, settled into his best groove since joining the Nationals last month.

He allowed just four hits and one walk from the second through the seventh, parsing the corners of the plate with a sharp sinker.

“I think I threw good pitches,” Hernandez said. “My sinker was working pretty good, and people were hitting fly balls and ground balls. It’s a lucky day.”

Seventy-one of his 106 pitches were strikes, and he came out of the game in line for his first win with Washington since 2006.

Then the Nationals’ bullpen whipped up a near-meltdown unlike anything it had done since April.

Desmond started it with a throwing error, and the Phillies loaded the bases on Zack Segovia. Matt Stairs then hit his first pinch-hit grand slam in nearly 11 years, spoiling Segovia’s Nationals debut and pulling Philadelphia within two.

Closer Mike MacDougal gave up two hits and was pulled for Ron Villone, who allowed an infield single to Chase Utley and spiked a wild pitch off the backstop that nearly brought in the tying run.

But when Ryan Howard grounded into a game-ending double play, Desmond was there again, turning the ball around second base to nip Howard at first. After years of shrinking from the spotlight, Desmond finally took his chance to grab it.

“Perseverance pays off,” Desmond said. “My mom taught me to be strong. Just keep on battling back.”

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