Thursday, April 28, 2011, 10:07 p.m.
Updated at 11:58 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
Ian Desmond and Livan Hernandez are, in many ways, polar opposites on the baseball diamond. Desmond is all energy, a second-year shortstop who acknowledges he's likely to vacillate between highs and lows over the course of a season, or even a game. Hernandez is the laid-back veteran pitcher, never flustered by anything, a sage right-hander who simply tries to maintain a level of consistency every fifth day.
Each, though, knows who he is and doesn't try to be somebody else. And when they stick to that philosophy and put it all together, as they did Thursday during the Nationals' 4-3 victory over the Mets, they are invaluable to this ballclub.
In Desmond's case, that meant returning from a two-day trip to Sarasota, Fla., to witness the birth of his first child and then homering and tripling to deep left-center. In Hernandez's case, that meant shrugging off this week's revelation that he's been linked to a federal money laundering case and authoring a prototypical Livo gem on the mound.
Those two efforts, combined with a fantastic 3-2 slider from closer Drew Storen to ex-teammate Willie Harris with the game on the line in the ninth, helped the Nationals snap a three-game losing streak. And that helped both Desmond and Hernandez regain a sense of normalcy after an eventful few days.
"It was nice to be back," Desmond said. "Watching the games the last couple days, it seemed like the team needed a little spark. I came in here today hoping to be able to do that. I did, and it felt really good."
Though he was careful not to outright say it, Desmond might well have been distracted through the season's first three weeks, knowing wife Chelsey was due to give birth at any moment. Whether he was or not, the young shortstop was off to a difficult start to the year, hitting just .173 through his first 13 games and committing a league-leading seven errors through 21 games.
The Desmonds hoped to induce labor on Monday, originally a scheduled day off for the club. But a rainout in Pittsburgh pushed things back, so Ian Desmond was placed on MLB's new paternity leave list Tuesday and flew to Sarasota. At 3:56 p.m., Grayson Wesley Desmond was born. About four hours later, still at the hospital, the new father held his first son in one arm and held his smartphone in the other, watching his teammates lose to the Mets.
Upon returning to Nationals Park on Thursday, having even managed to get plenty of sleep, Desmond looked at ease for the first time in a while.
"He just really played relaxed tonight," manager Jim Riggleman said.
Desmond's fourth-inning triple sparked a two-run rally that gave the Nationals the lead. His fifth-inning homer added to the cause.
"That's the Desmond that we know," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said.
"When you have a baby, it's difficult," said Hernandez, who referred to Desmond as "Big Daddy." "But he came back today relaxed. You see him today. He was unbelievable."
Hernandez was unbelievable in his own right, under very different circumstances. Though the right-hander has known about the investigation into his possible connection with convicted Puerto Rican drug trafficker Angel Ayala Vazquez for several years -- he reportedly appeared before a grand jury in 2009 while a member of the Mets -- the news only went mainstream to the American public on Wednesday.
That development might have rattled plenty of other professional athletes, and Hernandez certainly would have been justified had his mind not been entirely on baseball Thursday night. But if anyone can deal with this sort of distraction, this is the guy.
Anyone who watched Livo gab around the clubhouse with teammates or mow down the Mets' lineup and didn't know any better would never have guessed anything was going on.
It certainly helped that the crowd of 15,142 was squarely in Hernandez's corner Thursday night, cheering when his name was announced for the first time and cheering as he completed each of his eight innings on the mound.
"Whatever came out and whatever people not say the truth, it's OK," Hernandez said. "I can't do nothing when something came out. I can't do nothing. The fans always, they're great. They're the best fans in baseball. They support the team, everybody. They've got people's backs."
Hernandez was cool as ever in earning his third win of the season, scattered seven hits and a walk over his eight innings and mixing and matching pitches with precision. He even unveiled a new trick in the top of the second, somehow lollipopping a 53-mph curveball to Jason Bay and getting the slugger to ground out to short.
And as if his pitching prowess wasn't enough, Livo also singled and scored in the third and then drove in a run in the fourth with a squeeze bunt.
"He's a very smart guy," Riggleman said. "His instincts on the field are tremendous. He knows what's going on all around him. I've been watching him do it for a long time, usually in the other dugout, looking across at him doing it. It's a real honor to manage him, I'll tell you that."
There's no telling how Hernandez's legal story will play out over the rest of this season and beyond. There is, however, no reason to believe it's going to have any effect on his performance between the lines.
There's also no telling how Desmond's penchant for extreme highs and lows is going to balance out over a full season. But the Nationals do know their young shortstop is going to have plenty more nights like this where he does something to help his team win.
And they know each of these guys is going to give everything he's got on a daily basis, not for their own benefit but for the club's well-being.
"We're starting to lose ground," Desmond said of the NL East race. "We're better than what we've been playing. We don't want to lose that ground. We've got to start playing better."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.