The past week for the Nationals was already a trial run of life without Ian Desmond. Danny Espinosa started his first games of the season at shortstop and Steve Lombardozzi came back from the outfield to the infield as Desmond nursed an oblique injury that wouldn’t go away. And then, the Nationals learned on Sunday that Desmond would be out for at least a couple of weeks with an oblique tear.
Manager Davey Johnson told Lombardozzzi to forget about his outfielder’s glove. He told utility man Mark DeRosa to now consider himself the team’s backup middle infielder. Roles were changing and now, more than before, the team would be leaning on Espinosa.
In the past week, Espinosa started at shortstop six times and made all the needed plays. Desmond may have the edge with more range but Espinosa has already flashed his powerful arm from the other side of diamond, flinging balls to first baseman Adam LaRoche with authority. There’s been a slight adjustment for Espinosa — the longer throws, the positioning and reads — but the middle infield defense hasn’t shown any major holes yet.
“The long throws I guess are just throws you don’t make at second base,” Espinosa said. “Just reading the ball off the bat is totally different the way the ball spins and everything. 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.”
On days Lombardozzi didn’t start in left field, he would take extra ground balls at second base to stay sharp. Espinosa, however, said he hasn’t had that luxury, taking ground balls and double play feeds from shortstop on rare days off. But, now that he’s back at his natural position where he excelled at Long Beach State and in the minors, Espinosa said it starting to feel normal again.
Part of the adjustment will be on double plays with Lombardozzi. In the past week, Lombardozzi and Espinosa have already turned four smooth double plays, showing an instant comfort between the two. More time together will only help that.
During spring training, Johnson put Espinosa at shortstop for a few games to prepare him in the event that Desmond got hurt this season. Now, that seems likely incredible foresight.
“Espinosa’s going to be fine,” Desmond said. “He’s heating up. He’s playing good at short, and he’s just as capable of doing anything I feel that I am. So I don’t really feel too bad about it.”
It will be hard to replace Desmond’s presence on the field and bat, but what will also help dampen his loss will be Espinosa’s improved hitting. At one point last month, his left-handed slash line was .191/.273/.293. But since then, it has been on a steady trajectory up and now sits at .223/.288/.360. He has swung the bat with more authority and focused on a shorter, quicker stroke.
A sign that Espinosa may have finally turned the corner was his three-hit performance against right-handed pitchers last Monday in Miami. That started a 14 for 31 tear that included a 3 for 4 performance in Sunday’s 9-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.
“When you put that with what he’s swinging from the right side he’s picking up much-needed slack,” Johnson said. “Especially now it’s great that he’s going like that because we’re going to really miss Desi’s bat.”
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 11, Norfolk 4: Yunesky Maya allowed only two runs on sevens hits over six innings for the win. Jesus Valdez and Brett Carroll each drove in three runs.
New Britain 8, Harrisburg 4 : Left fielder Chris Rahl hit 12th home run of the season, a three-run shot. Brian Goodwin is 1 for 15 in his first four games with Harrisburg.
Myrtle Beach 11, Potomac 8: Third baseman Jason Martison finished 3 for 5, hit two home runs and drove in five runs.
Hagerstown 10, Augusta 4: Designated hitter Cutter Dykstra and right fielder J.R. Highley each drove in two runs. Starter Taylor Hill allowed only three runs, two earned, over six innings.