It was a routine fly ball, sailing low and fast to left field, but in its flight there was relief.
There was relief for the Washington Nationals, who won their fifth straight game by beating the Atlanta Braves, 2-1, in 11 innings Wednesday night. There was relief for Drew Storen, whose first blown save in more than two months propelled the game to extra innings. But above all else, there was relief for Ian Desmond.
Desmond’s sacrifice fly with one out and the bases loaded brought Bryce Harper home from third base and a mob of teammates out to first base, where the shortstop was waiting. Desmond was covered in chocolate syrup, the team’s signature walk-off celebration. For the slumping shortstop, it was a rare bright spot in what has so far been a difficult season.
“It felt good to win,” Desmond said. “I feel like I bring something to the team every day. I feel like I contribute. The box score may not say that. I know what I bring to the team. Yeah, it felt good to drive a run in there. We still got a lot of time to play. Whether you’re getting hits or not, there are still a lot of other ways to contribute to the team.”
As he was mobbed on the field, Desmond wore a red batting helmet with a No. 53 on its back. He wore the number in support of bench coach Randy Knorr, whose wife, Kimberly, died Tuesday. A moment of silence was held on her behalf Wednesday night. Knorr has not been with the team in recent days and will receive as much time off as he needs, manager Matt Williams said. Defensive coordinator and advance coach Mark Weidemaier has assumed Knorr’s duties as bench coach in the meantime.
Before Wednesday’s game, Williams described the Nationals as a family, and six hours later, Desmond showed why. The 29-year-old has known Knorr, a former minor-league manager in the organization, since he was a 18-year-old prospect fresh out of high school. Knorr’s loss was his loss.
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“We’ve been through a lot together,” Desmond said, visibly emotional as he talked. “That was awesome, but… I mean, I’d do anything to be able to go and give him a hug.”
Desmond is in the final year of his contract and likely to enter free agency this winter. With his next contract at stake, he has struggled this season in every facet of the game. Fans have called for him to be benched. Radio talk show hosts and pundits have questioned whether he will be traded. It reached a tipping point over the past week, during which Desmond was given multiple days off to rest, both physically and psychologically.
One such day off came Tuesday. Yet when he returned to the lineup Wednesday, the struggles persisted. In the second inning, Desmond bobbled what might have been an inning-ending double play for his 16th error of the season. In his first four at-bats, he was 0 for 3 with a walk. He stepped into the batter’s box in the 11th inning in the midst of a 4-for-37 skid.
Then, with one swing of the bat, all of that was forgotten.
“It’s great for him,” Clint Robinson said. “He’s come to the ballpark every day. He hasn’t hung his head. Whatever struggles he’s going through, whatever is being said off the field about him by everybody, he hasn’t listened to it. He still comes here and is the same person every day. He’s a great example for anybody who is watching for how to conduct yourself as a professional. He’s the gold standard in my opinion.”
Williams believes such a moment can help Desmond rebuild his confidence.
“It’s been a while since he felt like he contributed, so tonight he did that in a big way,” the manager said. “So that’ll help. It helps relax, it helps calm, it helps see the ball, all those things. So it was a good at-bat by him. Nice to see him come through for us there.”
For Desmond, the results are less important than the process. If he continues to work hard and stay confident, he believes good things will follow.
“I try to be a professional and handle my business the right way,” Desmond said. “I try to get better every day, whether I’m doing well or I’m doing terrible. I still try to come to the ballpark and contribute to the team and to win.”
• Tom Schad can be reached at email@example.com.
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