Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond - the right combination?

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 9:51 PM

For brief moments, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond can make the gray skies over Nationals Park go away.

They can't make you forget Stephen Strasburg is out for a year or that Stan Kasten quit last week. They can't keep you from muttering "Dopes" when you learn the Nats have finally offered Adam Dunn a three-year contract after it might be too late to get a deal done.

But, as a once-promising season winds down to a flat home finale Wednesday, the Washington Nationals need rays of light, just a couple please, to pierce the clouds. Maybe baseball is merciful. Suddenly, in a month, the Nats have displayed what could be a good-to-elite double-play combo for the next five years: Espy and Desi.

"I don't want to say too much too soon," superstitious Manager Jim Riggleman said. "But they have the range, the arms, the hands and the athleticism to be on a par with anybody else's combination. Now, it's just about time - time to learn and time to prove themselves over a long period."

If you want a hint of the 6-foot, 190-pound Espinosa's potential, the fellow who was hugging him behind the Nats' batting cage recently was Mike Weathers, who just retired as coach of Long Beach State. Weathers has been visiting three of his former players that he views as peas from the same pod: Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitski - and Espinosa.

You may not find anybody else in baseball that would group those three - not yet. But Weathers has seen the similarity in their stats as Dirtbags, then their growth in the minors before finding their full power in the big leagues. All had born-to-be-a-ballplayer auras around them.

Will Espinosa continue to develop as a hitter? Or, like another Dirtbag shortstop, 2004 AL rookie of the year Bobby Crosby, will too many strikeouts put a much lower ceiling on his career? Longoria and Tulowitski, both taller and 20 pounds bigger, were higher draft picks than Espinosa. But Weathers sees what they have in common - intensity and baseball sense - not differences.

"Danny's key quality is confidence," Weathers said. "He knows the game; he wants the ball. If you think he can play second base, he can really play shortstop. He has an amazing arm. And the ball always goes in his glove - I mean right in the center of the pocket, no matter what the hop is. That's just a gift.

"In college, Danny was an animal in the weight room, just like Tulo and Longoria. He's really strong. He had the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field, but he didn't do it."

"Yes, I did," retorted the switch-hitting Espinosa.

"No, he didn't,' said Weathers, aware that Espinosa has hit three of his six homers this month to the opposite field.

"Well, hitting right-handed, I couldn't do it to college," Espinosa said. "I finally figured out a way this year."

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