Patrick Reddington: Nats need Desmond to get back on track

Ian Desmond is one of three Nationals to play in all 40 games so far this season. Unlike right fielder Jayson Werth (.304/.391/.453) and second/third baseman Anthony Rendon (.282/.312/.479), the other two Nats to play in all 40, the 28-year-old shortstop has struggled at the plate (.226/.275/.368), while committing a major league-leading 10 errors.

With the primary backup at short, Danny Espinosa, pressed into everyday action with Ryan Zimmerman on the disabled list, Nats skipper Matt Williams has thus far been unwilling to give the likes of Zach Walters a start at short, preferring to send Desmond out there every day to work through his issues, while occasionally, as he did in the series finale in Arizona, coming through with a big hit that hints an offensive breakout is always one swing away.

Back on April 25, Desmond broke out of an 0-for-15 slump with a 3-for-5 game against the San Diego Padres that left him with a .221/.257/.379 line. Williams was asked the next day about continuing to send Desmond out every day in spite of his struggles.

"He's been struggling a little bit at the plate and last night's first at bat got him back on track," the manager said. "So I wanted to leave him in that game."

There were opportunities to double-switch Desmond out in what ended up being an 11-1 win, but with the infielder starting to swing a hot bat, Williams was reluctant.

"An inning off is an inning of," he explained, "but ... I look to this next week, so we've got an off-day Monday, an off-day Thursday, followed by another off-day three days later, so that's going to give them some time to have some rest too."

Williams' predecessor on the bench in the nation's capital, Davey Johnson, joked often over the years about the difficulty of convincing Desmond to ever take a day off to rest.

"I've got to fight the two guys up the middle," Johnson told reporters in 2012, when Desmond played 130 games, missing time only when an oblique injury forced him out. 'Whenever I say, 'Let me give you a day off,' the response is, 'Are you kidding me? Are we trying to win or what?' "

Desmond played 158 games in 2013.

"Desi's going to be our shortstop and he's going to play as much as he wants to play," Williams said in late April. "So he hasn't come to me and asked me for a day, and he's shown no indications of being slow or anything like that. He doesn't have any nicks or dings or anything, so he's good."

Asked if he would allow Desmond to play all 162 games if the shortstop could, Williams said, "Yeah. Of course."

"I don't see why you wouldn't allow your guys to play," the first-year manager continued. "Now that's very unusual today, but again, if he's playing well and he's feeling good and all of that, I can't take him out of the lineup just because I think he needs a rest. Your eyes tell you when guys need rest. But there are off days sprinkled in there, too. This last stretch has been a tough one because there just haven't been any off-days. But now, in the next three weeks, we're going to get a bunch of them, which will be good to give them some time when they need it."

"I've seen guys play 162 of them. It's demanding at shortstop, for sure, and I don't anticipate Desmond playing that many, but if somebody was to be playing well and want to do that, you can't deny them."

Since his 3-for-5 game against the Padres on April 25, which was followed by a 3-for-4 night in the finale of the series with San Diego, Desmond has shown signs of picking it up at the plate with a .262/.324/.385 line over his last 17 games. On the year, however, that still adds up to a disappointing .226/.275/.368 line.

Through 40 games in 2012, Desmond had a .275/.296/.456 line with 13 doubles and six home runs in 189 plate appearances.

Last season, the hard-hitting infielder hit the same 13 doubles and six home runs in his first 40 games, with a .288/.315/.516 line in 162 plate appearances.
So far in 2013, Desmond has hit just five doubles and five home runs in 167 plate appearances. His 46 strikeouts so far this season are, however, eight more than he had through 40 games in 2012 (36) or 2013 (38).

After the first two games of the Nationals' six-game road trip through Oakland and Arizona, the shortstop was mired in an 0-for-15 slump. He ended the trip with a 5-for-15 stretch in the final four games, and when the Diamondbacks walked Werth to load the bases in front of Desmond in the series finale in Chase Field, he took it personally, lining the first pitch he saw to left field in typical Desmond fashion to drive in two runs and break up a 1-1 tie in what ended up a 5-1 win.

"(Kirk Gibson) certainly wants to load the bases there and stay away from Jayson," Williams told reporters in Arizona after the win. "And (Desmond) got a good one to hit and hit it. It's a good feeling for him. I'm glad to see that. It's a positive thing for him."

Will it be the spark that gets the Nationals' everyday shortstop going this season? If he's going to be out there every day, the Nats need him to start hitting like he has in the past two seasons - and they really need him to cut down on the errors.

Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. Follow him on Twitter: @federalbaseball. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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