Desmond erases doubts with hot start

Desmond erases doubts with hot start
April 23, 2012, 12:39 pm
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There are any number of impressive and surprising aspects to the Nationals' red-hot start to the season. A major league best 2.34 ERA and 144 strikeouts. A National League best 12 wins. Six one-run victories. Five consecutive series wins.

And then there's Ian Desmond, whose strong start might be among the most pleasant developments for the Nationals. Chided by many last season when he got off to a sluggish start, the young shortstop is enjoying the good vibes and positive press that comes with the best opening two weeks of his career.

"What a difference a year makes," he said. "Last year, this time of the year, it was a huge struggle. I had eight errors. I was hitting about .200. We weren't really winning. This year, it's a new year. It's a fresh start, which is nice. Obviously, this is best start I've had in the big leagues. I'm feeling good about it."

Desmond has every right to feel good about it, as do his Nationals teammates and coaches. Entrusted with the leadoff spot despite his atypical hitting approach for that job, he's hitting .294 with six extra-base hits while also playing sparkling defense.

It's early, but so far Desmond has silenced his critics and won over new fans with his all-around play. Not that his manager is surprised.

"I mean, he's a heck of a player," said Davey Johnson, long one of Desmond's biggest supporters. "I know early on he had a bad rap with the glove. He's just a heck of an athlete. I think when he first came in here, he was trying to do too much. He's a tremendous athlete."

Desmond has always played with a certain energy that allowed him to show off that athletic skill, but also left him vulnerable to careless mistakes. So far this season, he seems to have found a happy medium, playing with enthusiasm but also in a controlled manner that has allowed him to avoid many of the gaffes that plagued him in the past.

"It's about developing and becoming a better baseball player," he said. "I don't think I'll ever harness it, because it's not really fun that way. I don't ever want to be the guy that just moseys on out there and tries to make the plays that are routine. I like being a high-energy guy. It's just about becoming a better player and making smart decisions."

Desmond is far from a finished product. Yes, he's hitting the ball with more authority so far this season, but he's still prone to swing from his heels when the situation merely calls for solid contact. He's only drawn three walks, resulting in a .319 on-base percentage.

But he's providing a rare combination of power and speed out of the leadoff spot, leading the Nationals with 10 runs scored while also ranking second with seven RBI.

That's exactly what Johnson was looking for out of his unconventional leadoff man. He didn't want Desmond to alter his approach just because his name was suddenly atop the lineup.

"With that kind of ability, I told him when you put it all together, you could be like Barry Larkin," Johnson said, citing the recent Hall of Fame electee. "You can steal bases. You can hit 1-2-3 in the lineup. You're a run producer. You're an on-base guy. ... He's got so much ability and so much athletic energy, he's fun to watch."

High praise indeed for a 26-year-old who is only just now beginning to establish himself at this level. Not that Desmond lets those kind of comparisons get to his head.

"I just want to be Ian Desmond," he said. "Go out there and play to my abilities. Just go out and have fun."