“Forget all that stuff in here,” Johnson said. Don’t worry about it. You’re all right. You just need to relax a little bit.”
Espinosa carried a more relaxed mindset into Sunday and snapped a brutal, weeklong stretch with two doubles and a walk in the Nationals’ 8-2 victory. Espinosa had gone 0 for his last 15, with 11 strikeouts in his last 16 plate appearances, the lowest point of a slump that has suffocated Espinosa since the all-star break.
Late Saturday night, Johnson told reporters that Espinosa, to him, seemed too intent on breaking out of his slump. “He’s over-trying,” Johnson said. “He’s just trying to do too much I saw it a lot early in Mike Schmidt’s career. I’m not comparing him to a home run hitter like Mike. But I mean, Mike was driven like that, obsessively looking at everything, trying to do everything better, until he learned to just kind of step back and not try to do so much. That’s what he’s going through.”
A few minutes after his session with reporters, Johnson sauntered into the film room and saw Espinosa. He knows he can push himself too hard. “I mean, yeah,” Espinosa said. “I’m the type of guy that I expect a lot from myself. If I don’t believe that I’m playing up to my expectations, then I do kind of press.”
Espinosa had not been hitting to his expectation, or to the full extent of his ability, for a while. At the all-star break, Espinosa was the leading candidate for National League rookie of the year, having hit 16 homers with a .793 OPS. After Saturday night, he was hit .206/.285/.311 in the second half, and his batting average has dropped to .226, the lowest of any Nationals regular.
Espinosa knew he was better than that. He just didn’t know he had started pressing too hard until Johnson told him.
“Sometimes, you don’t see it,” Espinosa said. “You think you do sometimes, but you really don’t. You’ve just got to calm down and not take everything so serious and just realize where you’re at is a good place and trust your abilities and go play.
“He said, ‘Don’t press. Don’t try to do too much. Just go out there and let your natural ability take over. Just play the game. If you let your natural ability go, you’re going to be fine.’ ”
Espinosa arrived Sunday morning with a fresh outlook. “I just wanted to play hard and let my ability take over,” he said. In his first at-bat, he took an easy swing and lined a double to the opposite-field, into the left field corner. In his next at-bat, Espinosa drilled the ball to the warning track in center field.
It did not make up for the rest of Espinosa’s second half, but it was a good start. It also sparked the Nationals’ stagnant offense to their first series win since Aug. 21. They scored eight runs for the just the fourth time in their last 19 games. In the third, Ian Desmond, Rick Ankiel and Ryan Zimmerman hit three straight homers.
“It was fun to have the lead,” Desmond said. “I think all series, the last two series, we’ve been behind and we’ve all been kind of defensive. Today, I think we all wanted to make sure that we stayed aggressive and weren’t so passive, giving the pitcher a strike or whatever it may have been. We wanted to make sure that we were in the driver’s seat all day.”