I had postulated recently that Steve Lombardozzi may be the player sent down when Ian Desmond returns, and I was flat wrong about that. Lombardozzi has been too good lately to not be on the roster for every game, even if he is coming off the bench or moving around the diamond.
Lombardozzi went 4 for 5 with two doubles in the Nationals’ 6-4 victory over the Giants today, his second-four hit game this week to go with a three-hit game in between. Given the chance to play his natural position every day, rather than left field in a platoon, Lombardozzi has blossomed. In the 25 games Desmond has missed, Lombardozzi has hit .308 with seven extra-base hits.
“The more consistent a-bs you get, the more comfortable you’re going to feel out there,” Lombardozzi said. “Getting more and more consistent at-bats from both sides is going to help, not just getting them from one side. Anytime you can get a couple from each side in the game, that’s a plus.”
Lombardozzi will not be able to play second base every day once Desmond returns to shortstop, with Espinosa shifting back to second. But Manager Davey Johnson will find times and places for him to play.
“Well, I’ll find him spots,” Johnson said. “He’s been great in the outfield. He’s great leading off. I’m going to lead off [Jayson] Werth but I can [play] Lombo when I don’t play Werth. I can play him some at third, some at second. I’ll just expand the role.”
While Lombardozzi will be moving back to a utility role, Johnson attributed his recent role to settling in at second.
“I think he’s more relaxed being in the infield,” Johnson said. “He feels more a complete player. That’s his position. He’s been outstanding, and I think once you get comfortable in your own spot it’s easier for the other side to kick in. Shoot, he’s had a great year. Unbelievable year.”
Lombardozzi’s temporary middle infield partner with Desmond on the disabled list has thrived lately, too. Today, Danny Espinosa went 2 for 4 with a double and a booming three-run homer to right-center that traveled about 430 feet.
Since the all-star break, Espinosa’s emergence has been one of the factors that has made the Nationals’ lineup the highest-scoring offense in the National League in the period. He posted a .683 OPS in the first half of the season, but he entered Wednesday with his second-half OPS at .821.
“About a month ago, I had to change my approach a little bit,” Espinosa said. “It’s been working for me, and I just a little more comfortable up there.”
Said Johnson: “He just made a lot of great adjustments in the span of six weeks. His approach is better. His stroke is better. Of course, the results are a lot better, too. He’s having fun.”
Espinosa has played a dynamite shortstop in Desmond’s absence. Espinosa is a life-long shortstop who only started playing second a few days before his call-up to the majors in 2010. Now, though, second feels like home.
“I don’t think it should be an issue,” Espinosa said. “I’ve only played over here for like a month or so. I played second base for like the past two years.”
Today ended Espinosa and Lombardozzi’s run as a double-play combination. Their performance helped the Nationals go 19-6 without their all-star shortstop and step forward as the best team in baseball.
That is how this Nationals season has gone: When arguably their best player went down for four weeks, they relied successfully on a rookie and a hitter who spent the first half stuck in a slump.
“They’ve been really outstanding,” Johnson said. “I can’t say it enough. They’re professional, they’ve played great defense and the offense has been great. It’s even picked up with Desi out.”