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Nationals will try to find room for Danny Espinosa in the lineup

Danny Espinosa after his home run. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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Espinosa’s production from his improved left-handed swing is among the biggest reasons the Nationals have stayed afloat through early injuries, especially to Anthony Rendon. After not swinging left-handed all spring, Espinosa started the season hitting well from that side, the time away perhaps helping him break from old bad habits and simplify his swing. Nearly nine weeks into the season, Espinosa’s swing and production have still continued.

“It feels good,” Espinosa said. “I’m just staying with my routine, trying to take my approach into the game and just trying not to do too much. Trying not to create. Just see the ball and hit the ball.”

Espinosa is hitting .235 left-handed in 119 at-bats but has a .795 OPS because six of his eight homers have come from that side, and he has drawn 16 walks. He is hitting .351 right-handed with a .997 OPS in 37 at-bats. Together, he has produced a .842 OPS, second-best on the Nationals.

Espinosa has hit so well this season that Manager Matt Williams said he must find a way to keep the switch-hitter’s bat in the lineup. Out of emergency on Sunday, Espinosa played left field for the first time in his professional career. He did extra pregame work in left field on Tuesday, suggesting it wasn’t simply out of emergency anymore.

“Have to try to find a space for him to play,” Williams said after Wednesday’s game. “It’s important to do that. We’ll spend the next hours discussing and try to work that out.”

Given the Nationals’ struggles in left field, especially since Jayson Werth landed on the disabled list, Espinosa could be an option to start there — if he doesn’t start at shortstop soon to spell Ian Desmond for a day. If Span needs more rest this week, then Michael A. Taylor could play center field and Espinosa handle left.

So far this season, Espinosa has outplayed Desmond, who has a .647 OPS and 14 errors. But Desmond has a longer track record; he’s a three-time Silver Slugger at shortstop while Espinosa struggled offensively the past few years. While Espinosa may be the popular choice now and is a future option at the position, he isn’t unseating Desmond, who is in the heightened spotlight of his free agent season where every stumble is magnified.

The Nationals rank 10th (.650) in OPS at shortstop in the National League but 14th (.611) in left field. There’s a more pressing need elsewhere and that may unfortunately force Espinosa, a slick-fielding infielder, into the outfield.

“I come to the field wanting to play,” he said. “Hopefully I get myself every opportunity by playing well. If I’m not in there, I’m not in there. But if it’s a different position, I’ll try to play it the best that I can. I just show up ready to play.”

Espinosa is athletic enough to handle left field — even with little experience. It will still be a challenge.

“I’m sure I could figure it out for nine innings,” he said. “There definitely could be work to do out there. I’ve never done it. So definitely work on flyballs, balls over my head and stuff like that. But I’d try not to overthink it and just catch the ball and make the plays I’m supposed to.”

>>> Since Werth wrist was fractured by a pitch, the Nationals have platooned left field. But Wednesday provided another reason why Taylor perhaps should be getting substantial playing time there. There are growing pains with Taylor — he is hitting .227 with a .679 OPS and 50 strikeouts in 128 at-bats — but there are also flashes of brilliance — his five home runs, which have all given the Nationals the lead or broken a tie.

Strikeouts and power have always been part of Taylor’s game, even in the minors, but he said he has been working on being more selective, to stop chasing pitches outside the strike zone and be patient at the plate. Before hitting the game-tying two-run home run in the eighth inning, Taylor also reminded himself to be calm in between pitches.

“Just trying to put the barrel on the ball,” he said. “In a situation like that, it’s easy to try to do too much and pop it up or get into a spot that you don’t want to be in. That’s something I’ve been working on, trying to put the barrel on the ball. I’m just trying to stay short and get something to hit.”

The more Taylor has been in the majors and in late-game situations. It’s also ironic that Taylor, the defensive replacement for Clint Robinson, had the big game-tying home run and has been a more productive hitter.

“The more times you do, the easier it is to slow yourself down and just relax in that situation,” Taylor said. “That’s all I’m trying to do.”

>>> Until the seventh inning, Gio Gonzalez looked perhaps the best he has all season. His first six innings were scoreless on 93 pitches and he commanded his curveball well, in addition to fastballs low and to both sides of the plate. Gonzalez said catcher Jose Lobaton was a big help behind the plate.

“The credit goes to Lobaton,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t try to think out there. Whatever he put down, go out there and execute it.”

>>> Drew Storen was dominant and efficient again in his appearance, but the Nationals were able to bridge from the mix-and-match seventh inning and Casey Janssen in the eighth to him thanks to the two strong innings from Blake Treinen. Entering the game, he had held right-handed batters to a .175 average but left-handers hit .340. Treinen faced only left-handers in the 10th inning with the score tied.

The biggest difference this time? He kept his sinkers down, Williams said.

“Trying to be aggressive in,” Treinen added. “I don’t want them to get cheap hits on sinkers that are away. They’re smart hitters. They know me know. They’re gonna try to see my sinker up and put a good swing on it and that’s what [Mark] Teixeira did. So went back to pounding four-seams and two-seams into guys and it sets up the rest of my pitches.”

Like Taylor, Treinen has flashed potential and struggled this season, still searching for the consistency that established major leaguers have learned. The Nationals bullpen would be better served if Treinen, like Aaron Barrett, could limit his ups and down.

“Sometimes you can second guess your pitch selection or execution of the pitch,” Treinen said of how to stay consistent. “It’s more or less focusing on that exact pitch and focusing on executing it to the best of your ability. I’ve had a few lapses where things have gotten away from me and it’s cost the team. A day like today is good momentum moving forward. I know I can do these outings every day. It’s just a matter of doing them.”

IN THE POST

Bad back and all, Denard Span beat out an infield single to power the Nationals to a 5-4 win over the Yankees in 11 innings.

IN THE JOURNAL

Bryce Harper — finally — faced a pitcher younger than him

Nationals add pitching, infield depth on Day 3 of MLB Draft

Matt Williams on the slumping Nationals offense, Ryan Zimmerman’s foot

The Nationals’ offense hits a slump

NATIONALS MINOR LEAGUES

Toledo 11, Syracuse 2: Taylor Jordan allowed eight runs on six hits over 1 2/3 innings. Eric Fornataro allowed another two runs. Mitch Lively fired three scoreless innings and has a 2.31 ERA this season. Darin Mastroianni went 3 for 6 with three RBI.

Harrisburg 9, New Britain 6: Austin Voth allowed three runs over six innings and struck out eight. On rehab, Sammy Solis allowed three runs on three hits, didn’t record an out and fired 18 pitches. Gilberto Mendez, Bryan Harper and Sam Runion combined for three scoreless innings. Matt Skole went 3 for 5 with a three-run homer. Tony Renda and Brian Goodwin each drove in two.

Carolina 11, Potomac 3: Reynaldo Lopez allowed seven runs, six earned, on eight hits and two walks over two innings. Kevin Perez gave up another three runs in relief. Isaac Ballou, John Wooten and Brandon Miller each drove in two runs.

Delmarva 6, Hagerstown 1: Luis Reyes coughed up five runs, four earned, on three walks and six hits over five innings. Andrew Cooper went two scoreless in relief. Alec Keller tripled.

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