When the Nationals decided on Rick Ankiel as their center fielder late in the spring and subsequently traded Nyjer Morgan, it left them without a clear leadoff hitter. Three games into the season, it’s clear they do not have one. In place of a defined first batter, they will choose between Desmond and Espinosa.
“I don’t think we have what you would call a prototypical leadoff hitter,” Riggleman said. “I don’t know how it’s going to play out. One of them has got to hit there. …Whichever one is getting on base a little bit more is the way we’ll go about it. We’re just going to see how it plays out.”
Espinosa hit leadoff frequently during his minor league career, and “he was pretty good at it,” Riggleman said. During his September call-up last season, Espinosa went 11 for 73 with 8 walks, 25 strikeouts and 3 home runs in 18 games as a leadoff hitter. This spring, Espinosa admitted he may have pressed when batting leadoff in the majors.
“When I started leading off, I started telling myself, ‘I need to get on base,’ ” Espinosa said in February. “So I started pressuring myself. Instead of how I usually take my at-bats, I was pressuring myself. I wasn’t taking the pitches I would be patient with. I started being overly aggressive, getting myself in bad counts. I was putting too much pressure on myself, and I forgot my game plan.”
Espinosa began this year 4 for 10 with no walks and three strikeouts. Espinosa saw 3.40 pitches per plate appearance during the opening series, but he took 3.88 pitches per plate appearance last year during his 28 major league games.
“I don’t think his mind-set changes a whole lot as he’s maneuvered throughout the batting order. He’s got enough speed. He’s probably a better run producer from a power standpoint than most leadoff hitters. He’s not the typical guy that’s going to work every count to be deep. But there’s some plusses that most prototypical guys don’t give you.”
Over the first three games, Desmond saw 3.31 pitches per plate appearance, the fewest of any Nationals regular. While Riggleman believes he may have been anxious, Desmond tried not to alter his approach.
“I didn’t look at it any different,” Desmond said. “I just went up there and had an at-bat. … I don’t care where I hit. My main objective is to be a good shortstop, and anything on top of that is plus.”
Desmond, he looked forward to clearing his mind during the day off. The worst time of the year to go hitless in three games might be the first three, because everyone can easily notice the slump. Desmond, who at one point last season went 19 at-bats without hit, is not concerned about his slow start.
“I’d rather get it out of the way now,” Desmond said. “That’s why I’m not really worried about it. I really don’t honestly know if I went 0 for 12 or whatever last year. Hopefully I get out of it now and continue on the rest of the year. I’m not frustrated one bit. It’s not that big of a deal.”
In his final two at-bats Sunday, Desmond hit the ball to right field, which felt was a good sign that he is starting to relax. “I started to feel good in the third game,” Desmond said. “To start feeling good against [Tim] Hudson, it’s the wrong day to start feeling good.”
Both Desmond and Espinosa are off today because Riggleman wanted to give Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston playing time to keep them fresh. The Nationals have had two of the past four days off, so Riggleman does not want rust to accumulate. “They’re not going to be effective at all for us if I don’t get us a ballgame here,” he said.