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Nationals' Desmond not an overnight hit

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

Desmond's rise to elite has been long, arduous

It had been seven years since former Nationals general manager Jim Bowden famously compared Ian Desmond, his young shortstop, to Derek Jeter. His own manager, Frank Robinson, believed Desmond immediately was ready to play in the big leagues defensively.

They were both wrong. There was still a long development curve ahead for the then 19-year-old, who showed such promise during that spring training in 2005. And he wasn't finished even as the 2012 season dawned. Desmond, now 26, was erratic defensively even though he possessed great range and struggled to get on base at even a passable level even though he showed decent power for his position and excellent speed. What exactly did Washington have here?

Desmond has spent the first half of the season answering that question. He enters the second half in Miami on Friday batting .285 with a career-high 17 home runs and 51 RBIs. He leads all major league shortstops in slugging percentage (.515) and is second in OPS (.830). He has 11 steals and 12 errors and was selected to the National League All-Star team for the first time.

Up next
Nationals at Marlins
Jordan Zimmermann (5-6) vs. Josh Johnson (5-5)
When » Friday, 7:10 p.m.
Where » Marlins Park, Miami
TV » MASN2
The first-place Nats (49-34) begin the second half of the season with a four-game series in Miami against the Marlins (41-44), who are in fourth place in the National League East. Washington has long struggled against Miami, which swept a three-game series between the two teams May 28-30. The Nats will begin with Jordan Zimmermann on the mound Friday and Gio Gonzalez on Saturday. They are pushing Stephen Strasburg back to Sunday for his next outing. Edwin Jackson pitches in the series finale Monday. The Marlins are without slugger Giancarlo Stanton, May's MLB player of the month, who had knee surgery earlier this week.

"I don't think it's really a surprise to him or anybody because everybody that I know has seen the talent when I first came here three years ago," Nats manager Davey Johnson said. "He's had his bumps in the road like any young player -- experimenting with different thought processes and batting styles. But I think he's real comfortable in his own skin right now."

But that process took 638 minor league games, a September call-up in 2009 and two full big league seasons. Along the way, Desmond had to fight comparisons to elite shortstops. Even now, Johnson says he was initially reminded of Barry Larkin, a Hall of Famer. But he also says it was up to the organization's development staff to convince Desmond to ignore all of that and find his own unique skill set.

"He's one of the best shortstops in baseball right now," teammate Bryce Harper said.

Desmond has improved his on-base percentage (.316), though it's still below average. But Johnson is OK with that because Desmond has become more selective at the plate. It doesn't mean he's a walk machine. His at-bats result in a walk just 4.4 percent of the time, and his strikeouts are down only slightly to 19.1 percent. But no longer is Desmond trying to mash balls on the inner half of the plate to right field, either. As long as he's making the right swing choices, Johnson is fine with his shortstop attacking early in the count. Even now, after 411 big league games, the learning curve continues.

"Great first half. Most importantly ... we're in first place, and that's really the only thing I care about," Desmond said. "When I came here in 2009 when I got called up, I hated it. I hated losing. It was terrible. Ever since then I've been working to get better, and I'm just happy that we're in first place and I'm contributing."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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