Fans will not storm through the gates early to watch Danny Espinosa take batting practice this season, which is fine with him. As teammates clobber balls over the fence and off scoreboards, Espinosa aims to hit grounders that skip sharply through the infield.
“I’m not putting on any type of display,” Espinosa said. “But I feel like it’s really gotten my swing to where I want it to be.”
The daily drilling during batting practice has helped Espinosa revamp his swing and led to a quietly productive spring training. He has gone 18 for 57 (.316) with three walks and 14 strikeouts. On the Nationals, only Bryce Harper has more hits than Espinosa. He has yet to hit a home run and has just three doubles, but the work he put in to change his left-handed swing has yielded the results he wanted.
Espinosa rolled another single through the middle this afternoon in the Nationals’ 4-3 loss to the Tigers, which dropped their record to 11-13-2. Manager Davey Johnson raved afterward about Espinosa’s rewired approach at the plate.
“He’s in a great frame of mind,” Johnson said. “He’s expressing his talent. He’s not trying to do too much with the ball. He’s hitting the ball where it’s pitched, basically. He’s getting more comfortable in who he is, which is fun watching.”
After last season, Espinosa decided he needed to change in order to cut down on his league-leading 189 strikeouts. The root of his problem, he determined, was dropping his back shoulder, which caused him to “collapse” backwards as he swung. It elongated his swing and hurt how he could see the ball.
“It’s felt normal, because I work on attacking the ball going forward,” Espinosa said. “I got in such a bad habit of trying to sit back, and I would collapse my backside. Now I feel that I’m attacking the ball and recognizing the ball well. I’m recognizing the ball early. It’s getting me in a mode to hit, not to see the ball and then hit.”
Power has not come with Espinosa’s altered mechanics, but Johnson disregarded that. “It’s not the time to be trying to hit home runs, anyway,” Johnson said. “It’s time to be a good hitter. He’s a much better hitter this spring.”
Espinosa still works on the adjustment each day during batting practice. He used to use the sessions to drive the ball in the gaps and over the fence, not thinking about anything except putting the ball on the barrel. Shaping his new swing “gives me something to work on,” Espinosa said.
It has taken some humbling. Espinosa takes batting practice in the same group as Ian Desmond. As Espinosa waits outside the cage, he watches Desmond send balls screaming in the general direction of the Earth’s atmosphere, one of the most impressive batting practices on the team.
“He just launches balls,” Espinosa said. “I go up next, and I’m hitting groundballs to second and short.”
Which is fine with him.
>>> Henry Rodriguez did nothing Friday afternoon to scuttle the ever-present concerns about his command. The first pitch he threw soared past Kurt Suzuki and all the way to the backstop. He started the first three batters he faced with 3-0 counts, walking two of them. While pitching coach Steve McCatty trudged to the mound with the bases loaded and no outs, Rodriguez stared at the mound and kicked dirt.
Rodriguez escaped the outing with minimal damage. He struck out a Tigers farmhand whiffing at a changeup, and Roger Bernadina made a miraculous, diving catch in deep right-center that served as a sac fly, the only run Rodriguez allowed.
The inning upped Rodriguez’s walk total to seven this spring over 5 2/3 innings. Johnson continued to show faith in his fireballing reliever, repeating his view that Rodriguez requires more time to find the feel for his pitches as he comes back from right elbow surgery. Rodriguez also had a late start this spring because of tenderness in his biceps at the outset of camp.
“He just needs to pitch,” Johnson said. “I wanted him to use more of his offspeed stuff today, and when he did that and he was outstanding. But he’s probably still trying to get his arm in shape, his release points in shape. That happens with power pitchers. This is like the first half of spring. He was kind of limited with even throwing off the mound. I think he’ll be fine.”
Ryan Mattheus followed Rodriguez and continued his steady spring with a 1-2-3, two-strikeout inning. In 10 innings this spring, Mattheus has 13 strikeouts and one walk.
>>> The Nationals made a change to closer Rafael Soriano’s schedule. Rather than traveling Saturday to Port St. Lucie to pitch against the Mets, Soriano will stay in Viera and pitch in a minor league game. He is still not 100 percent after undergoing a root canal Thursday afternoon, Johnson said. Soriano’s final preparation for the season will come when he throws back-to-back days March 27 and 28.
>>> Jordan Zimmermann and Andy Pettitte are scheduled to start the Nationals-Yankees exhibition game March 29 at Nationals Park.