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NATIONALS: For Ian Desmond, A Hit Not Always Worth The Wait
WASHINGTON – As a leadoff batter in an era where a discerning eye is valued as much as a devastating swing, Ian Desmond is a much better friend of the latter.
Forget Moneyball. Ignore discipline. For Desmond, if it looks good enough to hit, it’s good enough to swing at.
“They give you three strikes for a reason,” Desmond said. “I’m not really discriminating on any pitch count. I’m just ready to hit, and if it’s there, I’m gonna swing at it.”
The approach has been working, no matter how counterproductive it may seem. Desmond, the Washington Nationals’ shortstop, is hitting .368 through the first eight games of the season, despite a 1-for-6 effort Friday night that lowered his average 38 points in a 2-1, 13-inning victory over Cincinnati.
His 13 hits entering the game were the most in the major leagues, and his five multi-hit games in the young season tied him with last year’s World Series MVP, St. Louis’ David Freese, and Los Angeles’ Matt Kemp for tops in the National League.
“I’m just looking for a good pitch that I can handle early, whether it’s the first pitch or the last pitch, and I’m just looking for a pitch that I can drive,” Desmond said. “A lot of times it comes on the first pitch, and sometimes it comes on the seventh pitch, you know?”
The fast start is a progression for Desmond, who entered his third full season with the Nationals this spring with a firm grasp on being an everyday player for the first time. He has been one of the more productive batters in baseball since last year’s all-star break, hitting .302 since mid-July, and has been one of few reasons Washington is amongst the National League leaders in team batting average.
That kind of improvement is important for the Nationals, a team which entered the season with offense ranking as its primary concern. But it’s also important for Desmond, who dedicated himself during the winter toward becoming a more mature player.
“When you first come up [from the minors], it’s, ‘Do I belong? Am I overmatched? Am I gonna stay here?’ Then you hit that point where you’re like, ‘OK, I’m good enough to be here. I’m not going down. I’m not losing my job. I’m gonna play for a while,’ and that’s normally when you see those guys take off,” said Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche.
“That’s when you see them skyrocket in their careers, when they get that confidence that, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’ I think that’s what [Desmond’s] coming into now – knowing that he’s a huge part of this team, and there’s no question he can compete at this level.”
Desmond began last season as the leadoff hitter, but when he struggled to a 9-for-50 start with 12 strikeouts over his first 12 games – his .180 average amongst the worst in the majors – then-manager Jim Riggleman banished him to the bottom of the order. He didn’t return to the top spot until early in August, after the hitting streak began.
Still, his relative inexperience shone through during the offseason, when Desmond went home to Sarasota, Fla. to work with his former high school coaches. Despite the strong finish, Desmond wanted to revamp his swing – his legs a bit wider, his hands cocked differently – to correct what he saw as inadequacies in his mechanics.
Davey Johnson, though, didn’t agree. A veteran manager who has seen his share of young players actually minimize their abilities by overthinking, Johnson instead coaxed Desmond into a compromise between what he wanted to do and what previously worked.
“I think in Ian’s case, like with a lot of youngsters, they get an idea when put in a role that they need to do a certain amount of things to get better,” Johnson said. “He’s been off-track a couple times. … He got by that, and he’s playing like Ian Desmond.”
What Desmond is unlikely to change is his approach. Though he did work a seven-pitch walk in the second game of the season at Chicago – one of only two he’s taken this season – he’s still put the ball in play on the first pitch of an at-bat seven times, including three times in his first appearance of the day and three times on Friday.
If it works, he’s learning not to fix it.
“Any time you’re getting hits, it feels good, your confidence is up,” Desmond said. “I’m not really putting too much stock into it. Obviously, [eight] games into the year, we’ve got a long way to go.”
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