- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

Force of the mid-five slap between Ian Desmond and first base coach Tony Tarasco was in line with the moment. It was not authoritative nor well-connected, much like the light-hearted hit that Desmond sent to right field on Sunday. What mattered was that Desmond was standing on first base, a place he longed to be much more often.

Pending free agency can be tricky. The specter of wading onto the open market can crush and embolden. Desmond is among a handful of Washington Nationals players in the final year of their contracts. He’s reportedly turned down offers from the club worth more than $100 million. Like Max Scherzer in Detroit, Desmond chose to gamble on pedigree. One more season, perhaps one more Silver Slugger award, before a chance maximize value on the open market. He’s a willing dice-thrower.

Though, in mid-June, Desmond is just hoping to visit or run past Tarasco more. April, when he’s had a .287 on-base percentage, and June, now at .367, have been dismal for Desmond. A reasonable May, at .754, was sandwiched in between.

Desmond’s swoon has been so deep and prolonged — his average was .260 on May 29, but is now down to .222 — that manager Matt Williams hit him ninth last week against the Tampa Bay Rays when the designated hitter was in play. By the end of the week, Desmond was scheduled to take consecutive days off before Yunel Escobar fell sick, forcing Desmond back into the lineup. His addiction to routine makes days off the enemy. Williams thought Desmond needed a break.

“I hope he rests,” Williams said of Desmond. “The last day off he had, he refused to rest. Took batting practice. Back to the grind. I want him to rest. Take a blow. He’s been an everyday player for a long, long time. Things have not been good for him so far this season and there is a bunch of baseball left, so I want him to rest and relax and freshen up a little bit. It’s difficult to do that with him because he’s a worker.”

Being a free-swinger always puts Desmond closer to the cliff’s edge than a more disciplined hitter. As a result, he’s teetered in the past. In 2010, his first full season in the major leagues, Desmond hit .222 in June. Months of .274 and .347 followed. May and June of the following season were also deflating. In May 2011, Desmond posted a .549 OPS. June was worse: .483.

There was no such dip in 2012. But, May 2013 was a mess that resulted in a .643 OPS. He hammered his way to .988 the next month. Last season, he started slow over April and May before winning his third consecutive Silver Slugger at shortstop.

“It’s nothing beyond what I’ve been through before,” Desmond said. “I’ve been through some similar situations like this, and like I said, the rain always brings sun. It’s coming. You just got to weather the storm.

“I have a long history of failures and successes. Going back to my first year in pro ball. I grinded my way here, and I’ll grind my way back. Simple as that. I believe in myself. I don’t need anything or anybody to tell me what I’m capable of. I know what I’m capable of. I’ll get it back.”

Alarming for Desmond this season is that his walk rate is an all-time low. His strikeout rate is a smidge lower than its peak, which was 28.2 percent last season. He’s at 28 percent now, according to Fangraphs.com. His .266 on-base percentage is 157th out of the 166 qualified players in Major League Baseball. He is well on pace to posting career lows in almost every offensive category.

His line-drive percentage is also down. His ground-ball percentage is up, as is his swing percentage at balls outside of the strike zone. He’s not on base often enough to steal 20 bases or more for the fourth consecutive year. In fact, he was caught stealing five times last season — more than the four times he has attempted to steal this year.

Not far from the midpoint of the season, Desmond is trying to fix things by maintaining. He does “side flip” drills in the cage, letting a ball tossed to him underhand travel deep before swinging. He also works off the tee. He’s never been much for video. In batting practice, he tries to go to right field, into the opposite field gap and to center. A pitch’s location determines its launch direction.

Those methods are traditional grind for Desmond. The 29-year-old will not alter his swing or habits.

“I’m married to my swing. It’s not going to change,” Desmond said. “My swing is my swing. I’ll make small adjustments, but five, 10 years ago I would’ve overhauled my swing. Those are the mistakes I made back then. I’m not going to venture down that road again.

“I believe in what I’ve done. It’s proved over the last few years that it does work, and I don’t see a need to change it. Maybe it’s just some confidence things or small mechanical, like you said, tinkering, but no, I’m not in any situation or position right now to change my swing or to overhaul anything.”

Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu said Desmond is a “big-time feel guy.” Acknowledging Desmond’s penchant for consistent work and desperate ambition to help the team, Schu joked he stays away from Desmond on his rare days off. On the other days, Schu works with Desmond to summon more of a spray-hitting approaching. He feels seeing Desmond hit the ball the other way with backspin is a sign things are going well for the right-hander.

“I think right now, he’s just trying so hard,” Schu said. “We’re in the middle of a pennant race. It’s a contract year for him. It’s hard to hit when you’re trying to go 5-for-4. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. He’s our team captain. Feels like he’s got to be the guy all the time. If he could relax a little bit more, have some balls start falling in for him, start rolling in the other direction.”

Willing to talk when things are bad or good, intense, full throttle, those things are Desmond. Relaxed? Well, no. He at least tried over the weekend on a day off during a clubhouse visit from two of his knee-high boys, one of which was sporting a mohawk.

A month ago, during more palatable times when Desmond’s double drove in the winning run against Philadelphia, he was asked about any feeling of leisure when at the plate.

“I don’t really want to feel relaxed in the box,” Desmond said. “More like controlled aggression. Sometimes not so controlled.”

Therein is the four-times-a-night, internal fistfight. Be more controlled, but also be who you are, a player based in ferocity. So, how Desmond became a player positioned to turn down $100 million is the way he plans to fix things this season to help the Nationals win. There will be nothing gentle about the journey to get there.

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