Adam LaRoche knows what Danny Espinosa is going through

No Nationals hitters have sunk to the offensive depths of Danny Espinosa, but one of them can sympathize. In 2011, his first year with the Nationals, first baseman Adam LaRoche tore the labrum in his left shoulder at the start of spring training. He felt no pain when he swung, and so he tried to play through the injury. After 43 games, he finally decided his performance – a .172/.288./.258 batting line – could no longer be tolerated. He came to accept the shoulder tear was derailing his season, and he underwent season-ending surgery.

“The hardest part is, you don’t feel it swinging,” LaRoche said. “So you don’t blame it on your shoulder. I just knew where I was, the way I was seeing the ball, and what I was feeling, not getting to balls that I always have. I just knew something was wrong. I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t prove it, other than from experience. It was like, ‘There’s no way I’m not getting to these pitches as good as I’m seeing them.’ Finally, I just asked the doctors. ‘Could it be just weak? It’s not painful. It hurts to throw. But to swing, it’s not painful.’ ”

Part of LaRoche’s 2011 ordeal mimics Espinosa’s 2013 struggle. Espinosa entered the season with a tear in his left shoulder, the rotator cuff instead of the labrum. He has felt no pain while swinging, and he has played through that injury and also, for the past six weeks or so, a bone chip in his right wrist. After he went 0 for 2 with a hit by pitch Sunday, Espinosa is hitting .158/.193/.272.

The tear in his shoulder seems to clearly be affecting him, same as it affected LaRoche two seasons ago. Espinosa’s best trait is his power, and it has disappeared this year, only getting worse as the season wears on. The most tell-tale sign of the impact of Espinosa’s rotator cuff tear: He has no extra-base hits in his last 58 plate appearances.

Espinosa has not accepted that the shoulder is to blame. “I’m not worried about it,” he said. Maybe he is right, but it seems impossible to believe Espinosa could fall so far unless he was physically compromised. He is not this kind of hitter. But LaRoche can understand why Espinosa would try to keep playing.

“It took a while [for me] to shut it down, because there was no pain there,” LaRoche said. “Plus, he’s got a high pain tolerance. Tough kid. There could be stuff going on there that’s not even on his radar. We just know he’s a lot better hitter than what we’re seeing. I’m sure he’ll come back.”

For now, Espinosa continues to work daily with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, working on his swing mechanics, insistent his health is not the problem. He felt good about his first two at-bats Saturday night, a hard grounder to short and a sinking liner to center that B.J. Upton plucked off the tip of the grass.

Still, Espinosa’s power is simply not there. In 2011, what stood out most for LaRoche was his slugging percentage, which dropped to .258 before he underwent surgery, barely half of his current .481 career average.

“When you’ve got a tear, it’s just weak. It’s harder to get that top hand to the ball,” LaRoche said. “The hardest part is, it doesn’t hurt. So you don’t blame that on the swing. If it’s torn pretty good – I had three or four anchors put in mine – if it’s a good tear, it can start to get in your head a little bit. I don’t know how you know without going in there and looking at it. I don’t know how you say, ‘Yes, it’s affecting me,’ or ‘No, it’s not.’ I just remember it being a really frustrating thing. Because there wasn’t any pain.”

Espinosa is a switch hitter, and so his top hand is affected by the rotator cuff tear when he bats left-handed. Batting lefty, Espinosa is slugging .264, worse than his right-handed performance (.323) despite a higher batting average (.168 to .129) compared to as a left-handed batter.  In his career, including this year, Espinosa has slugged .378 from the left side.

Espinosa has played 44 games, one more than LaRoche did through his shoulder tear in 2011. Eventually, LaRoche decided surgery would cut his season short. At that point, he still had a year on his contract, and so even with Michael Morse filling in for him, he was safe in his position. Espinosa may feel more protective about his job, especially with the Nationals moving Anthony Rendon to Class AAA and playing him at second base.

For now, Espinosa keeps trying to extricate himself from his slump. Time will tell if his shoulder, or the Nationals, will let him.

FROM THE POST

It’s June 2 and the Nationals are under .500 after a 6-3 loss to the Braves, writes Adam Kilgore.

Over the weekend, Miguel Cabrera has the unofficial title of the world’s best hitter, as Barry Svrluga explains.

Stephen Strasburg has ‘slight strain,’ Bryce Harper placed on DL as Nationals try to overcome injuries, Kilgore writes.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Nationals ‘overly optimistic’ about Stephen Strasburg lat strain, says one medical official

Erik Davis shines in major league debut

Bryce Harper says he should have gone on the disabled list a month ago

Stephen Strasburg has a Grade 1 lat strain

Jayson Werth continues rehab in Potomac, on track to join Nationals on Tuesday

Erik Davis joins the Nationals bullpen

Nationals promote top prospect Anthony Rendon to Class AAA Syracuse

Nationals place Bryce Harper on the disabled list

Anthony Rendon’s promotion to Class AAA caps an eventful night for the Nationals

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Pawtucket 10, Syracuse 3: Matt Torra allowed four runs on six hits over five innings. Ryan Perry allowed two runs over 1 2/3 innings in his second appearance since returning from the DL, both as a reliever. Anthony Rendon started his second straight game at second base and made one fielding error. Eury Perez and Zach Walters homered.

Harrisburg 6, Trenton 2: On a rehab assignment, Christian Garcia started and tossed a scoreless inning, allowing only one hit. He debuted on Friday and allowed two runs, one earned, in one inning. Taylor Jordan took over for Garcia and allowed two runs, one earned, on three hits over seven innings. He has a 1.08 ERA since being promoted to Harrisburg. Steven Souza, Jr. went 2 for 4 with a homer, Sandy Leon went 2 for 3 and Brian Goodwin smacked a triple.

Potomac 10, Lynchburg 6: In what is expected to be his final rehab game, Jayson Werth continued his hot hitting. He went 9 for 16 in his five-game stint, including 2 for 4 on Sunday with two three-run homers. Kevin Keyes, Jason Martinson and Francisco Soriano each added runs. A.J. Cole allowed four runs on six hits over 5 1/3 innings.

Lexington 5, Hagerstown 2: Starter Ivan Pineyro allowed two runs on five hits over 5 2/3 innings. Tony Renda went 2 for 5 and is hitting .297 with 26 RBI. Brandon Miller hit his 11th home run.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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Adam Kilgore · June 2, 2013