Desmond breaking out on postseason stage
Nationals shortstop went under the radar during great regular season
WASHINGTON -- Ian Desmond has the name, looks and personal style of a movie star. His set is the ballpark, where there are no second or third takes. You are what you do, with the whole world watching.
On the heels of a breakthrough 2012 season at 27, Desmond is busy making a name for himself on the grand postseason stage for the Nationals.
"He's come a long way, taking that next step and maturing into one of the best shortstops in the league," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "This year he's shown everyone what we've been waiting for. He's so athletic and talented. All of us couldn't be happier for him."
Showcasing all five tools as an elite player, Desmond is focused on helping drive Washington past the defending World Series champion Cardinals in the National League Division Series that resumes with Game 3 on Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET on MLB Network at Nationals Park.
Desmond was 4-for-8 in the two-game split at Busch Stadium, collecting three hits in his postseason debut. His defense was impeccable. But this, he stresses, is no time for individual pursuits.
"It's baseball, it's about winning," Desmond said. "It's about controlling your heartbeat. It's a big moment. It doesn't matter if you have 15 years or one year [of postseason experience]. We're all equal."
On the surface, there is very little of Tony Gwynn to be found in Desmond, a lean athlete who hits and throws right-handed and swings with a slugger's authority.
And yet, when Stephen Strasburg -- the protected Nationals ace who has been left to observe the postseason -- studies Desmond's demeanor and approach, he recalls the Hall of Famer who coached him at San Diego State.
"Being around coach Gwynn for three years," Strasburg said, "and seeing how he went about his business in a way you can respect, Ian reminds me of that old-school style of game.
"He doesn't show anybody up. He plays hard. And he's not holding anything back. He doesn't take easy swings. He swings the way he plays -- hard. I love having him behind me."
|"He doesn't show anybody up. He plays hard. And he's not holding anything back."|
|-- Stephen Strasburg|
Desmond is the rare old-school player who attacks the game -- and first pitches -- and also manages to score highly with the new-age statistical community.
Fangraphs.com puts Desmond's total value at No. 19 overall in the Majors with a 5.4 WAR (wins above replacement) -- No. 1 at his position in the National League. He is ninth among all players in the category of win probability, highest among shortstops.
Strasburg, unwittingly, is one of the reasons Desmond has developed into arguably the game's best shortstop without much fanfare. The other reason is Bryce Harper. When you play alongside two of the sport's most magnetic personalities, it's easy to get lost in the shadows.
Quietly, earnestly, Desmond has put it all together in his third full Major League season. He was named to the National League All-Star team but had to withdraw because of an oblique strain. There are few, if any, shortstops in the game with his breadth of skills.
In front of the first D.C. postseason crowd since 1933 on Wednesday, facing the great Chris Carpenter, Desmond will hit in his customary sixth spot.
He raised his offensive numbers across the board this season, to .292/.335/.511. Desmond led all shortstops in slugging and with 25 homers, finishing second with 73 RBIs.
As for his habit of coming out of the on-deck circle swinging, Diamond batted .391 with a .979 OPS when he put the first pitch in play this season. His career numbers are .369 and .919.
"He likes that first pitch if it's in a good spot," Zimmerman said, "and he's done a lot of damage on those pitches."
Manager Davey Johnson has called Desmond the team's co-MVP along with first baseman Adam LaRoche. A power-hitting second baseman in his day, Johnson has worked with Desmond on controlling and maximizing his aggression.
Dropping Desmond from first to sixth in the order clearly has had a relaxing effect. He has a .307/.351/.543 slash line as a No. 6 hitter in his career compared to .275/.305/.425 in a comparable number of starts leading off.
"Davey coming into Spring Training and helping me with my approach," Desmond said when asked to identify the source of his improved production. "There's no secret, no tricks. Try to see a good pitch and hit it hard.
"I don't feel these games are any different than any other ones. Play as hard as you can, so when the pressure comes, you can't turn it up any more."
Zimmerman feels a strong show of support by Johnson and upper management has eased the mind of Desmond, who heard his name mentioned in trade rumors in previous seasons.
"He's had years where he would be really good defensively and not so good offensively, and others where he'd hit but be kind of up and down defensively," Zimmerman said. "He was here at a very young age  and put at a demanding position and told to perform. It's not easy to be consistent at this level.
"For them to say, `This is your position, there's nobody behind you.' -- I think that meant a lot to him. As a young player, there's always some doubt. For them to say, `You're the guy.' That boosts your confidence."
Zimmerman and Desmond go way back.
"I slept on his couch in Savannah [Georgia] my first pro season," Zimmerman said.
Desmond was taken in the third round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft by the Expos out of Sarasota High School in Florida, launching his career that summer. He was at Savannah the following year when Zimmerman -- the first-round pick out of the University of Virginia in the '05 Draft -- showed up.
"We've seen each other grow up quite a bit," Zimmerman said.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.