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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."

That long process - of figuring out the game a piece at a time - is what Nationals fans will be watching for years.

Since Espinosa was called up, he has transformed a whole chunk of the Nats' future. In a sense, he isn't just one player: he's two. Because Espinosa is so good defensively at either shortstop or second base, it means Desmond, a team leader and a .300 hitter since he was moved to No. 2 in the batting order, will probably not have his career derailed by those 35 errors he has made this year.

"Desmond is going to be our shortstop," Riggleman said flatly this week.

But if he isn't - if he can't learn the knack of charging grounders so he gets the easy short hop, rather than the tough in-between hop, if his hands stay nervous and his arm is scattershot - then he can do what many a rangy but erratic shortstop has done in the past: move his athleticism, his bat and his remarkable range to second base, where everything moves a beat slower.

In Espinosa, the Nats have not only seen a third-round draft pick develop quickly into a potential star but also have gained a vital insurance policy to protect Desmond's value.

Will Espinosa's production this year at Double-A, Triple-A and with the Nats continue? If his combined 28 homers and 25 steals are anywhere close to his eventual norms, then he'll be an all-around star someday. But for now, even though he has 11 extra-base hits and 15 RBI in his first big-league month, it barely matters. If his .229 average and 24 strikeouts mean that he'll have limits that keep him from being a Chase Utley, so be it.

"Focus on the defense," Riggleman said. "If he hits, good. But for now, that's extra."

As long as Espinosa isn't overwhelmed with too many demands too soon, he solves a huge potential Desmond dilemma. In 13 months, Desmond, 24, has proved he can hit enough to be an up-the-middle standout if he can lock down a position. Look up elite middle infielders and compare their early stats to Desmond's career numbers so far: .276 with 54 extra-base hits and 76 RBI in 586 at-bats, plus 17 steals. Robin Yount took seven years to get above that level.

"Desmond has been the bright spot of the season," Riggleman says. It's nice when you can make your manager forget Strasburg.

Espinosa has been a hard act to follow - even for himself. He hit a homer in his first at-bat as a starter. In his first home game at Nationals Park, he had a single, double, two homers, six RBI, a curtain call and a pie in the face. He already has made more highlight defense plays at second base than any Nat who has inhabited the position while fielding 1.000. He also has been in on 18 double plays in 18 games, which is so good it can't keep up.

"Out of a small sample, I can't imagine anything better than what he's done," Riggleman said.

At the Nats' last home game Wednesday, the NL champ Phillies may send out their famous duo of Utley and Jimmy Rollins. They are the present, to be sure. But does that other team, the one with the 90-loss cloud over its head, have the combination of the future?

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