Spotlight shifts to Espinosa

Spotlight shifts to Espinosa
July 23, 2012, 4:14 am
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When Ian Desmond's lingering oblique strain first forced him out of the Nationals lineup eight days ago, teammate Danny Espinosa expressed optimism the club's All-Star shortstop's ability to produce at such a high level while injured would allow him to return in short order.

"I'm hoping that's what it is, because he's been too crucial defensively and offensively to our team," Espinosa said that morning in Miami. "To lose him for an extended amount of time, we can't have that."

Except they now have exactly that. With Desmond on the disabled list for at least a month, possibly more after an MRI revealed a slight tear of the oblique muscle, the Nationals find themselves needing to find a way to overcome the extended loss of perhaps their most indispensable player at the moment.

And Espinosa will be right in the thick of it trying to fill that hole as the Nationals' everyday shortstop for the foreseeable future.

Defensively, the club isn't too worried about Espinosa's ability to shift from the right side to the left side of the infield. He played shortstop at Long Beach State and through most of his minor-league career, only moving to second base a month before his Sept. 2010 big-league debut because Desmond was already at shortstop in Washington.

Espinosa has the arm to make throws from the left-side hole, as he exhibited over the last week. And he's beginning to feel more comfortable maneuvering around at his once-and-now-current position.

"Just reading the ball off the bat is totally different, the way the ball spins and everything," he said. "The first few games I was there, I had Ian in the dugout helping me as far as what he thought position-wise, so I could just kind of get a feel for it. It comes back."

With little reason to worry about Espinosa's defensive play, the Nationals are more concerned with keeping him red-hot at the plate.

After a prolonged slump that had manager Davey Johnson preparing to begin platooning him at second base with rookie Steve Lombardozzi, Espinosa is enjoying his best sustained offensive stretch in more than a year. After a 3-for-4 showing yesterday, he's hitting .338 with an .893 OPS over his last 20 games. For the season, he's now hitting .250, the highest his batting average has stood since April 26, 2011.

"I'm feeling good," he said. "Just confident, comfortable up there. I feel good."

Much of Espinosa's recent surge has come from the left side of the plate, where he had put up abysmal numbers through the season's first half. Slowly but surely, he's managed to cut down on his uppercut swing from that side and start driving the ball to the opposite field.

"I saw it probably three weeks ago when he started having better at-bats," Johnson said. "He was just more consistent. He was getting to more balls. He was using the whole field. ... I don't know what he's been since then, but I haven't seen him have a bad at-bat hardly from the left side.

"When you put that with what he's swinging from the right side, he's picking up much-needed slack. Especially now, it's great that he's going like that because we're going to really miss Desi's bat."