MIAMI -- He had managed to play the best baseball of his career through a lingering left oblique strain for more than a month. But when Ian Desmond resorted to bunting in the ninth inning of last night's game, it became obvious to manager Davey Johnson his shortstop needed a day off.
"He came in earlier ... and said that part of the reason he bunted was because he couldn't swing," Johnson said. "So I said we're just going to take it easy today. Especially a day game after a night game where it bothered you. Get work on it, hopefully you can get by it."
Thus, Desmond is out of the Nationals' lineup for the first time since April 19 and only the second time all season. When asked about the injury this morning, the All-Star shortstop insisted he feels "fine," but his manager's actions suggest this may be more of a concern than he's letting on.
Johnson decided to slide Danny Espinosa from second base to shortstop for today's game, a move he said he would only make if he felt there was a chance Desmond would be out several days. For that April 19 day off, Steve Lombardozzi started in Desmond's place at shortstop, with Espinosa staying at second base.
"I'm being on the safe side," Johnson said. "Ergo, I don't know how long it might be."
Espinosa came up through college and the minor leagues as a shortstop but hasn't played there in a regular-season game since Sept. 2010. He took grounders from the left side of the infield this morning to get reacquainted with the different angle and make sure he had his footwork down.
"It's not difficult, I guess, because I've played there my whole life," Espinosa said. "I went out there and took groundballs today, just to make sure I was comfortable with it. So it just took me about 10 groundballs to get my feet going in the right direction."
Desmond bunted twice in his final three at-bats last night. He actually beat out his drag bunt attempt in the fifth, sliding headfirst into the bag ahead of Carlos Lee's tag, then stole second and came around to score on Jesus Flores' RBI single.
That dive didn't appear to contribute to the injury, which is affected only when Desmond makes a twisting motion as he swings. Which explains why he didn't swing away in the ninth inning of a one-run game, ultimately striking out looking at a pitch from Marlins right-hander Steve Cishek.
The Nationals are hopeful Desmond won't need to spend time on the disabled list.
"It's something he's learned to live with," Johnson said. "Treatment and stretching can loosen it back up, and he'll be ready to go. Certainly his performance, it hasn't hurt his power. He's been Mr. Iron."
Indeed, Desmond has been the Nationals' best all-around player the last three weeks, hitting .418 (23-for-55) with seven doubles, six homers and 16 RBI. That performance helped earn the 26-year-old his first All-Star selection, but he chose to skip the game last week because of the oblique issue.
Desmond said Friday the four days off did him good and that he completely shut himself down over the break to let the strain heal. In the end, that rest might actually have caused the muscle to tighten up and make the situation worse.
"Sometimes when you have an injury and you totally rest it, sometimes it tries to over-heal and those muscles get a little tighter from the healing or the adhesion or whatever," Johnson said. "He's going to have to kind of stretch it out, loosen it up, more stretching, more massage. But how long that's going to take, I don't know."
Teammates hope they get Desmond back in a matter of days, understanding how difficult it would be to overcome the loss of their All-Star shortstop and emotional leader.
"If he's been playing with such pain, I'm hoping that it'll be a very short amount of time for him to recover," Espinosa said. "I'm hoping that's what it is, because he's been too crucial defensively and offensively to our team. To lose him for an extended amount of time, we can't have that."