Searching for solutions as the Nationals sank out of the Nationals League East lead in mid-May, manager Davey Johnson was confronted with two realities: The team’s offense was struggling, and Ian Desmond was no leadoff man.
The Nats were living off their pitching, averaging just 3.65 runs per game to that point, and had hit a 1-3 skid when they had scored a total of nine runs. The free-swinging Desmond was hitting just .272 as a leadoff man with a .294 OBP and 35 strikeouts in 173 at-bats to that point. He had, however, hit six home runs, including a game winner, and had a propensity for hitting when ahead in the count.
Johnson had to make more productive use of whatever pop Desmond could provide by getting him more chances with men on base, so pitchers would have to be more careful. So on May 19, with the team needing to match bats with the powerful Baltimore Orioles, Johnson shuffled his lineup. He moved surprisingly patient rookie Bryce Harper to second, and dropped Desmond to the fifth spot.
It paid off instantly on the scoreboard and shortly thereafter in the standings. Since moving Desmond to the fifth spot in the order, the Nats’ offense has surged, averaging 5.5 runs per game heading into Monday’s game at Miami, and scoring less than five only twice. And after losing that May 19 game to the Orioles, the Nats went 6-1 heading into Miami and moved back into the division lead.
The move achieved the desired results for Desmond as well. He has hit .296 as the No. 5 hitter and his RBI pace has soared, with seven in eight games. Pitchers have had less chance to get ahead of him, and he struck out just 5 times in 37 at-bats heading into Miami.
Cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche‘s numbers have suffered since Desmond moved in behind him, falling from a .313 average to .296, but as the two men ahead of him, Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, have surged, Desmond has made opponents pay for pitching around LaRoche with several clutch hits.
Johnson will now have an interesting decision to make when Michael Morse returns to the lineup in the next week or so. He is well suited for the cleanup or No. 5 spot, meaning the manager will have to find somewhere else to put Desmond. With Steve Lombardozzi thriving in the leadoff spot, it’s not likely Desmond will move back there.
Johnson will have the luxury of using Morse as a designated hitter in American League parks and keeping both Lombardozzi and Espinosa in the lineup through most of June, but once they return to full-time NL play, and Morse moves Lombardozzi out of left field, he’ll have to decide whether to play Lombardozzi at second base against right-handers and put Desmond in Danny Espinosa‘s No. 6 spot. Against lefties, he could move Harper down to the No. 6 spot and risk using the strikeout-prone Danny Espinosa at leadoff with Desmond hitting second.
With a schedule of potent AL East teams and division opponents coming up, the Nats can’t afford another offensive slump, and Desmond will need to hit with men on base to keep the runs coming.