The greatest at-bat of Ian Desmond’s major league career actually began in the middle of the ninth inning, three batters before he came to the plate Wednesday night.
As Arizona Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz threw his warm-up pitches, preparing to protect a one-run lead, Desmond remembered a nugget of advice former Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson once told him.
“Watch the pitcher. Watch the pitcher. Watch the pitcher,” Desmond recalled the Hall-of-Famer saying.
What Desmond saw on those pitches helped him connect on a two-run home run that lifted the Nationals to a 5-4 victory and ended their five-game losing streak.
“It’s just what we needed,” Desmond said over country music playing inside the victorious home clubhouse. “To finish it up like that, for me personally it was awesome, but for the team even better.”
Desmond ultimately was the hero, but rookie Bryce Harper was the star of this win.
In his fourth major league game, the wunderkind went 3-for-4 with two runs and two doubles. He injected some life into an offense that had mustered only seven runs during the five-game skid.
Both of Harper’s doubles hit the right-center-field fence. The first one, in the fourth inning, was only inches short of landing in the seats for his first major league home run.
The second led off the ninth inning. After the Nationals left runners on base in the seventh and eighth, the 19-year-old center fielder got his club back on the proper course.
“He was born for those situations,” manager Davey Johnson said. “If you ask him, I wouldn’t doubt he’d say, ‘I’m more relaxed now than I was in [Triple-A] Syracuse.’ He likes the game on the line and him being up. You can tell by the way he’s aggressive, he makes them throw it over, and he’s trying to do some damage every time he swings it.”
Harper’s first major league victory was especially sweet because he had such a big impact on the result. With so much hype surrounding the former No. 1-overall pick’s arrival in Washington, he has emphasized his focus on contributing to the greater cause.
Before he started the game-winning rally, he scored a run in the fourth on a hustle play. Catcher Wilson Ramos hit a wicked, sinking line drive that ate up Diamondbacks second baseman Aaron Hill.
Harper rounded third as the ball trickled into the shallow outfield. Hill recovered, and his throw to home plate beat Harper. But Harper slid and knocked the ball out of catcher Miguel Montero’s glove. Safe.
“On that kind of ball, you really got to bust your butt around the corner,” Harper said. “I was reading Bo [Porter, third-base coach] the whole time, and I was going, so I was trying to make something happen at the plate and was going hard.”
Harper’s reward could be a higher spot in the batting order Thursday night, Johnson strongly implied. He has batted seventh in each of his first four games.
Desmond made sure Harper was part of a winning effort. Prior to the ninth, Washington’s shortstop noticed Putz’s split-finger fastball was up in the strike zone during his warm-up pitches. With that in mind, he knew he could look to drive a fastball up in the zone and react to any splitter.
He came to bat after Harper’s double and strikeouts by Ramos and pinch-hitter Rick Ankiel. When Putz threw a belt-high fastball with the count 1-1, Desmond blasted it into the visitors’ bullpen.
“I barreled it up pretty good, but I never hit high home runs, so I was a little bit worried,” Desmond said. “Fortunately, I got enough of it.”
And the Nationals, finally with some pop in their lineup, clung to first place for another night.
“Somebody standing up and getting a big hit, turning the ballgame around, snatching it, that takes the collar off of everybody, the choke-collar,” Johnson said. “So it was huge.”