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Evolution of Ian Desmond a key part of Nationals' success

WASHINGTON -- Ian Desmond waited in the on-deck circle for his first at-bat on Aug. 20, wondering if this could be the day things turned around. He was riding an 0-for-11 drought since returning to the Nationals lineup from a left oblique injury a few days earlier.

In years past, the struggles would have gotten to him. He'd spend the day thinking about ways to break out and intensely watching film of the opposing pitcher. Oftentimes this resulted in him being too aggressive at the plate.

Not anymore. Desmond no longer treats every at-bat like it's a life-or-death situation, and it's paid dividends this year. Despite missing more than 30 games, he's set career-highs in almost every category, including home runs (25), RBIs (72), doubles (32), batting average (.297), on-base percentage (.339) and slugging percentage (524).

"I'm trying to compete for my team every single at-bat, but if I do get out, it's not the end of the world," he said. "I'm going up there with much less stress. I'm a little bit more free and allowing my athletic ability to show through."

Desmond wasted no time doing so that day against the Braves. On the very first pitch in his first at-bat, he crushed a cutter from Atlanta's Tim Hudson to leftfield for a two-run homer that put the Nationals ahead 4-0 in a game they'd win 5-4.

It was his first home run in six weeks, but for Desmond, the result was only the latest byproduct of his newfound confidence that has made him one of the best young players in baseball and a vital part of the postseason-bound Nationals.

***

Desmond was selected by the Montreal Expos out of Sarasota (Fla.) High School in the third round of the 2004 draft. His ability was seen quickly in the minor leagues, enough to consistently draw comparisons to a young Derek Jeter and hear him labeled a five-tool player.

While the expectations placed on him were high, they were eventually reachable, he thought, with the right amount of work. The problem was that he wanted to rush the process.

He recalls then-manager Frank Robinson telling him at his first spring training camp in 2005 that he'd be a big league player by 22 or 23 years old. Desmond, 19 at the time, believed that was too long a wait.

"I always felt I would make it before that," he said. "I wanted to get there earlier."

Doing so called for a more intense approach than ever before. He spent long hours on the diamond and in the batting cages. He thought about the game nonstop, especially when he wasn't playing. Desmond said if he went 0-for-4 he wouldn't be able to sleep at night.

The pressure he placed on himself was evident when he played for Double-A Harrisburg in 2006, as he hit .182 with a .214 on-base percentage and one strike out every 3.7 at-bats.

That confidence he exuded early in his career diminished and remained scarce when he was sent back down to Class A Potomac in 2007.

"I remember a time when he had a bad game and I come out after and he's the only one in the clubhouse," then-Potomac manager Randy Knorr said. "He had his head down. He'd been struggling for about three or four days."

"What's going on with you?" Knorr asked.

"I just don't got it, man. I'm struggling," Desmond responded.

"Alright, just keep playing hard and you'll make it to the big leagues."

Desmond shot Knorr a puzzled look and said, "You're crazy."

Except he wasn't. By season's end, Desmond had fashioned the best year of his career, earning a promotion to Double-A for 2008. In '09, he reached Triple-A Syracuse, where he hit .354 in 55 games before being called up to Washington on September 10, 2009, 10 days before his 24th birthday.

***

Desmond won the starting shortstop job the next spring over former All-Star Christian Guzman and vowed to never return to the minors. No more long bus rides, no more 5,000-seat stadiums. This was his time and he wasn't going back.

To make that a reality, he continued pushing himself.

"I wanted it so badly early on that I lost sight of the process of the plan," Desmond said. "I wanted to outwork, outplay, outperform. I wanted to do everything, to speed everything up. I was in a rush.

"I think that correlated to some of the errors and mistakes I made, trying so hard to be the player that I thought I could be or eventually will be."

In that first full big league season, Desmond was solid at the plate (.267 batting average, 65 RBIs) but labeled as a poor defender. His speed and length allowed him to get to balls many other shortstops couldn't. The problem was what happened after.

Sometimes he tried making a play when he should have just let the runner reach base. Other times he thought he had to hurry when he didn't need to, causing him to bobble the ball or make an inaccurate throw to first. It culminated with Desmond leading the major leagues with 34 errors.

According to a former National League East infield coach, who asked not to be identified, Desmond "had a narrow fielding base. His feet were too close together. He had a different arm angle every time he threw the ball."

The next year those issues were addressed, and Desmond made 11 fewer errors despite playing 109 additional innings. He's been just as solid this season and is on pace for a career-low in miscues. The improvement, he said, stems largely from better knowledge of his pitching staff, discussions with mentor Larry Bowa and thousands of offseason short-hop drills.

But while his defense was better in 2011, he struggled offensively, hitting .253 with a .358 slugging percentage and 139 strikeouts.

Desmond took time in the offseason to reflect and determined overthinking at the plate was once again a main reason for his lackluster performance. As a result, he completely eliminated watching film -- "I was trying to be a scientist instead of a baseball player" -- and focused more on relaxing in the on-deck circle.

Desmond also benefited from time training "in a little warehouse."

Owned by his former high school baseball coach, Dwayne Strong, "Sandlot at Five-Tools Baseball" is an indoor training facility located in Bradenton, Fla. Desmond had spent the last few years preparing for the season at the local IMG Academy. Last offseason, however he decided, was time for a change.

He and Strong worked together from October until March, typically three or four days a week. They started with core work -- flipping tires, pull-ups, hitting a punching bag -- and always jumped rope, a routine recommended by Reds Hall of Famer Barry Larkin.

Desmond would next take swings in front of a mirror in hopes of catching any mechanical problems and then hit 50 to 75 balls off a tee. He'd end by spending, on average, 45 minutes in a machine-pitched batting cage.

The schedule was made to improve his overall hitting ability, but Strong believed there was one staggering issue Desmond had to correct.

"He was just getting beat," Strong said. "The pitcher was attacking him and he was waiting for the ball to be released before making a move. We really worked on him getting a good start this offseason so that he's prepared when the ball comes out of his hand."

In the past, Strong said, Desmond's hands and feet weren't set until the ball was about 7-to-8 feet from home plate, giving him "no opportunity to read anything." His reaffirmed focus on starting earlier now allows him to analyze the pitcher and be set 10-to-15 feet beforehand.

Desmond's patience is still a problem (he sees only 3.38 pitches a plate appearance), but he has demonstrated a better sense for when to swing. He's also able to jump on pitches earlier, which helps explain why he's hit 25 home runs this year after hitting just 22 in his career before this season.

---

Such success has helped Desmond's once-fragile confidence, but an even bigger boost came from Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Earlier in his career, Desmond says, "everything felt like an audition to me." But the 70-year-old Johnson, who took over as manager in the middle of the 2011 season, made sure Desmond knew that he would be assured a spot in the lineup each game.

"He told Ian 'You're my everyday shortstop. Now just go out there and play,'" said Knorr, who is now the Nationals' bench coach. "In the past, he felt like he should be, but he's not getting the same feedback. People in the organization are saying that he's 'looking like a shortstop, maybe not a shortstop.' That weighs on him."

"I always wanted to prove to people," says Desmond. "I never wanted to get out. Every time I'd come out, I'd be mad. I'd let it get the best of me. Now I realize there's a process of playing. I know I'm going to have another opportunity -- whether it's today, tomorrow or the next day -- to impact the game. I put less stock into every at-bats performance and more stock into realizing that this is a long season -- a marathon, not a sprint -- and whatever happens is meant to be."

Desmond, who made his first All-Star team this year, now seems destined to be a fixture for the Nationals for years to come. "We're just touching the surface of things that he's going to be able to do," says Washington hitting coach Rick Eckstein.

Earlier this summer a player came over and told Eckstein -- he who wouldn't identify the player or his team -- "Ian Desmond's going to be, if not already, the best player in the big leagues."

Hearing this prediction, Desmond just smiles. On a club with big names such as Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, he may not be the most well-known player but the buzz around him is growing. And similar to his ascension, it doesn't appear to be stopping anytime soon.

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