Danny Espinosa’s revival hits a snag

May 10, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Washington Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa (8) hits a solo home run against the Oakland Athletics during the third inning at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

(USA TODAY)

brushback_harperThe first month of Danny Espinosa’s season seemed to create a line of demarcation. He had erased the 2013 hitting version of himself, it appeared, replacing it with a calm, selective approach. He batted .288/.341/.488, and combined with his typically stellar defense, it made him one of the Nationals’ most valuable players.

May has muddled one of the brightest storylines of the Nationals’ season. Espinosa is 6 for 51 this month with – this is staggering – 23 strikeouts and zero walks. He has still played his usual defense, which alone makes him playable. But his overall slash line has dropped to .221/.259/.412.

Manager Matt Williams benched Espinosa on Sunday, but don’t expect that to become a regular occurrence. Williams wants Espinosa’s glove in the field, and he believes he can recapture what happened in April. Ryan Zimmerman has been doing outfield work, which would open up continued playing time for Espinosa once Zimmerman returns.

Espinosa is part of the Nationals’ plan. They just need him to come closer to his April production than his May slump.

“I think it’s pitch selection,” Williams said. “I think that he has chased some balls out of the strike zone. But you know what, he’s fantastic at second base, and I want to put him in there as much as I can.

“The good thing about Danny is, he’s not taking it to the field. He’s excited, enthusiastic, comes ready to play every day. There’s no reason that that first two, three weeks of the season can’t come around starting today. I think he’s fine. He’s driven some baseballs. That’s good. He’s a vital part of our team. I’ve said that since Day 1 of spring training.”

The data verifies Williams’s diagnosis. Per FanGraphs.com, Espinosa has swung at 38.9 percent of pitches he’s seen outside the strike zone, 13th-most in the majors. He has made contact with only 51 percent of those swings, which also ranks 13th-worst in the majors.

In spring training and early in the season, Espinosa’s ability to lay off close pitches compared to last year stunned and delighted Nationals evaluators. On opening day, he drew a tough walk in a crucial situation when he spit on tough pitches. Lately, as Williams pointed out, he’s reverted.

Three of Espinosa’s six hits this month have been homers, including a game-tying blast in Arizona. He has six homers overall, more than any National expect Ian Desmond. In a way, the power surge may have affected Espinosa’s newfound approach.

“I’ve experienced that before, where you’re doing 1-for-4 with a homer, and you find yourself 0 for 2, and you say to yourself, ‘I’ll just do what I did last night,’ ” Williams said. “When you try to do it, it doesn’t happen very often. When it happens, it happens because your approach is right, because you’re getting a strike to hit – something that you’re looking for, something that you want, instead of trying to hit everything. I think over the last couple of weeks, he’s been trying to hit everything.”

The Nationals hope Sunday’s day off will help Espinosa return to the approach he used in April. They still believe he’s no longer the hitter he was in 2013. It’s just that May made it more complicated.

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NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Columbus 8, Syracuse 3: Will Rhymes went 3 for 5 with a home run. Brian Goodwin went 4 for 5 on Friday, but went 0 for 9 over the weekend. He’s hitting .236 for the season. Steve Souza Jr. went 2 for 5. Destin Hood went 2 for 4 with a double. Michael Gonzalez threw a scoreless inning, walking one. He’s allowed no runs in 8 2/3 innings.

New Britain 5, Harrisburg, 3: Matt Purke allowed four runs in four innings on eight hits and no walks, striking out three. His ERA rose to 8.04. Michael Taylor went 1 for 4 with a walk. On Saturday night, A.J. Cole pitched a complete-game, seven-inning four-hit shutout. He struck out eight and walked none as he lowered his ERA to 2.25.

Potomac 4, Myrtle Beach 2: Stephen Perez went 4 for 5 with two doubles, and he’s hitting .331/.416/.459 on the season. Estarlin Martinez, recently promoted from Hagerstown, went 2 for 4 with two doubles.

Lexington 1, Hagerstown 0: Ike Ballou went 1 for 4 with a double, Hagerstown’s only hit. Drew Ward made his ninth error of the season. Austin Voth allowed one run in six innings on four hits and two walks, striking out four. Ryan Ullman tossed a scoreless inning and lowered his ERA to 0.87 in 20 2/3 innings.

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