Before each game, Ian Desmond goes through a pregame drill that’s part intense practice, part comfortable ritual. He grabs batting practice pitcher Julian Martinez, renowned as the best fungo hitter among the Nationals’ field staff, and gets him to slap short pop flies to shallow left field.
Just past third base. Along the left field line. To the no-man’s land beyond shortstop and not quite into the beginning of left-center that’s hard for anyone to cover.
“I practice it every day,” Desmond said after the Nationals evened the best-of-five National League Division Series against the Cardinals at two games apiece with a 2-1 walk-off win Thursday night. “I’ve got a great fungo hitter in Julian and he hits me one of those every single day, so I practice it.”
Little did Desmond know that practice would make for game-saving perfection.
With two down in the top of the ninth in a 1-1 game, with pesky Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma on first base after drawing a walk from Drew Storen, Desmond made perhaps the finest defensive play of his career.
Pinch hitter Matt Carpenter dunked a 3-2 Storen fastball beyond third base, about 15 yards inside the foul line. Left fielder Michael Morse, playing deep to prevent a double, had no shot at the ball. With Kozma running on the pitch, all that stood between the Cardinals possibly taking the lead was a Desmond dive and grab.
Desmond speared the ball just before it dropped to the grass, tumbled and cradled it against his stomach, like an NFL receiver protecting a completed pass. Nationals Park erupted in applause and the dejected Cardinals took the field for the bottom of the ninth, knowing they’d been robbed of a golden opportunity in a tense playoff game.
Then came Jayson Werth’s homer leading off the bottom of the ninth, which sent Nationals Park into a sustained state of delirium. But the improbable - winning despite being held to three hits - might not have been possible had Desmond not rose, er, dived to the occasion.
“The biggest thing, with the stadium being as loud as it was, was to commit to going after it and not worry about Mike,” Desmond said. “That can be a situation where we both run into each other. I just said I’m going for it and it’s mine. If I run into him, I run into him. (But) I’m going to catch it.”
Making Desmond’s snag even more amazing was that it was the first play made by a Nationals fielder since second baseman Danny Espinosa fielded Daniel Descalso’s ground ball and threw to first to end the sixth inning. Jordan Zimmermann, the Nats’ Game 2 starter, came out of the bullpen to strike out the side in the seventh. Tyler Clippard did the same in the eighth, working around a two-out walk. Storen had gotten David Freese and Descalso swinging for the first two outs of the ninth before Kozma drew his free pass.
It’s not easy for fielders to stay engaged when a pitcher is doing all the heavy lifting. But Desmond insisted watching strikeout after strikeout by Nationals relievers didn’t diminish his concentration one bit.
“You can’t get lulled,” he said. “This is Game 4 of the NLDS. If you’re lulled, you got to go home and tee it up on No. 1.”
The significance of the play wasn’t lost on Desmond’s teammates.
“(He’s) running out when the ball is going like this and your head is going like this on a crucial catch looks like an easier catch,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, bobbling his head to mimic the motion of the ball and Desmond’s noggin as he tracked it. “But nothing is routine in that situation. For him to go out there and take charge ... it’s an overlooked, great, routine play would be the best way to say it.”