Lost in Sunday’s wacky 5-4 walkoff win over the Phillies were glimpses of the recently disappearing power strokes of the Nationals young infield core: Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa.
After helping carry the Nationals offense through the first half of the season with 16 home runs, 52 RBI and a numerous clutch hits, Espinosa has slumped dramatically. He’s learning what it takes to last through an entire major league season, battle through his first extended slump and a string of bad luck. Espinosa’s game-tying home run in the sixth inning on Sunday was his first home run since July 17, 118 at-bats later.
Espinosa spent much of the first half batting all over the batting order, from second to fourth to seventh to seventh. And before last week, Manager Davey Johnson moved Espinosa into second spot. But since July 17, Johnson moved Espinosa into the six hole and Desmond into the leadoff spot.
In doing so, Johnson figured, he would take advantage both players’ natural tendencies and feelings, regardless of how they were performing. And in doing so, he would help ease them out of their struggles and into a groove.
“When you manage, if you actually accommodate what they think then they’re up for the task,” he said. “And you get to know the individual more and more you try to accommodate what they think.”
Johnson felt Espinosa was more comfortable lower in lineup, where he could drive in runs.
Johnson’s reasoning: “Well, I think part of it was me wanting him to get more at-bats in the ballgame. He’s a tough guy to pitch to, switch hitters are tough guys to pitch to. And he driven in a lot of runs for us. And not that you can’t drive in runs in the two hole but in his mind he is probably a little more comfortable hitting down in the order.”
And with Desmond, whose game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth in Sunday’s game was his first in 64 at-bats and only his third in 348 at-bats, Johnson felt that the shortstop wanted to be a table-setter, someone who could uses his speed on the bases. In 525 at-bats last season, Desmond homered 10 times but has only managed five this year in 430 at-bats so far.
Johnson’s reasoning: “Ian Desmond wasn’t getting on base and I just decided to accommodate them and their physique. Like I tell you, I’m going to give a cookie to Ian and hit him second. You know, he thinks that I just came to my senses, regardless of his on base percentage being .280 and probably the worst of all the hitters.”
>>> Speaking of the Nationals’ young core middle infielders, Johnson decided to give center fielder Rick Ankiel a break on Monday and play Brian Bixler in his place. Because Desmond and Espinosa are young and Johnson wants them to develop more, Bixler and infielder Alex Cora haven’t seen much playing time recently.
Bixler, who is normally called upon for pinch hitting, running or late-inning defensive duties, hasn’t started since July 31. It's been longer for Cora, who hasn’t started since July 27.