- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — In a sweatshirt and shorts, looking relaxed as usual, Ian Desmond sat on a couch inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday watching an afternoon game. The night before, he’d hit a home run. The night before that, he’d hit a home run. Before that, it was doubles in back-to-back games.

Desmond’s name appears on National League leaderboards for hits, total bases, multihit games, doubles and extra-base hits. He leads the Washington Nationals in doubles, home runs and hits and is second in RBI and slugging percentage behind cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche. He’s had two hitless games so far this month, and the last time he went two straight games without a hit was April 27-28.

“This is kind of what we’ve all been waiting for, right?” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

Desmond isn’t trying to hit home runs. As manager Davey Johnson says, “Home runs should be mistakes. Swing hard enough to hit a double.”

But Desmond’s never hit more than 10 home runs in a major league season, and he already has eight. He isn’t trying to turn himself into a power hitter, but he’s becoming one. Desmond, who slugged .358 in 2011, leads all NL shortstops in homers and extra-base hits.

“I’m just hitting the ball,” Desmond said with a shrug of his shoulders. “It’s not like I’m trying to lift. That [home run Monday] was a line drive. It just went out. I’m just trying to make contact and not strike out.

“I’ve never been a home run hitter at any point in my life, and I don’t think I am now. I’m just trying to hit the ball, and I’m getting lucky I guess.”

It might be a little more than luck. For years, the Nationals saw the tantalizing potential Desmond possessed, offensively and defensively. But before this season, he struggled to get both aspects of his game to align at such a high level. They are now.

And the path to this point has been one of self-discovery. It had to be.

Johnson’s impact in that regard can’t be underestimated.

Johnson, who often compares Desmond to Hall of Fame selection Barry Larkin, urged Desmond to be himself at the plate last year. He urged him not to try to do things beyond his capabilities, but rather live within them and watch his ability flourish.

“I really think that his conversations with Davey meant a lot in getting him to understand who he is,” said hitting coach Rick Eckstein. “Ian understands more and more who he is. He’s hung in there and challenged himself to learn about everything. Part of that is to learn about himself.”

Along the way, he’s become more comfortable with the player that he is. Desmond has never lacked for confidence in himself, but there were plenty of low moments, particularly in 2011, when he wondered if he’d reached a low point. Normal, say most of his teammates. Then he became the leadoff hitter, assured that that’s who he’d be, and he took off.

“When it starts to go bad, you feel like, ‘In my mind, I’m not good enough to play at this level,’ ” LaRoche said. “And until you do it, and do it, and do it, and all of a sudden, ‘OK, I belong here.’ Until then, until that breakout year, there’s still a lot of questions.”

About a week ago, Desmond popped his head into Johnson’s office and told the manager he wasn’t locked into being a leadoff man. He loved the spot, but he didn’t need it. He’d hit anywhere Johnson needed, and with a lineup depleted by injury, he needed him elsewhere.

“That just told me he felt free enough in who he was and what he was all about that he could hit anywhere and he’d be comfortable,” Johnson said. “That was a good sign.”

Desmond hit .272 and slugged .451 out of the leadoff spot. Since moving to the No. 5 spot the past four games, he’s hit .375 and slugged .875. “Daddy strength,” he called it, in reference to his 1-year-old son. “Thanks, Grayson.”

“To watch Ian go out and play the games that we’ve seen him play this year, you go, ‘That’s who we think he can be,’ ” Eckstein said. “It’s been fun to watch.”

NOTES: Michael Morse (lat) will begin playing in extended spring training games Friday and remains on target to return to the active roster on or before June 8.

c Brad Lidge threw off a mound for the first time since surgery to repair a sports hernia and came through it without issue. He will go to Viera, Fla., on Thursday and is on schedule for a return to the major leagues around June 12 or 13.

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