Espinosa's offense ramping up at right time as he returns to shortstop

It certainly is never a good thing when you lose a starting position player, especially one as important as shortstop Ian Desmond. But Danny Espinosa, who is a natural shortstop, has gotten hot at the plate at just the right time. And the Nationals are going to need him now for what could be an extended period of time with the news that Desmond is out with a tear in his left oblique.

"That is a big loss," Espinosa said. "Ian has done unbelievable for this year. From defense to hitting, hitting for power, stealing bases, he has done everything for us. To lose him for a couple of weeks, it hurts.

"To put up the numbers he did and have the oblique problem the whole first half, he went out there and battled for us and played through injury, knowing that it was hurting him. He did an unbelievable job."

But Espinosa has been red hot at the plate, which helps lessen the blow of losing a player of Desmond's caliber right now. He continued to swat the ball around the yard with a 3-for-4, two-double, two-RBI performance in the series finale, a 9-2 rout of the second-place Atlanta Braves.

Espinosa has hit in eight straight games and nine of his last 11, going 11-for-27 (.407) on the homestand, contributing two doubles, including a game-tying homer and five RBIs.

Manager Davey Johnson said he has seen this streak at the plate building in Espinosa's at-bats since the middle of June and it has come at the right time for the ballclub.

"I saw him maybe a month ago starting to have better at-bats and he was more consistent," Johnson said. "He was getting to more balls and he was using the whole field. He was hitting the ball hard, but nothing was falling for him.

"And then that one game in Miami, when he got three hits. He is picking up much-needed slack. It is great that he is going like that because we are really going to miss Desi's bat."

Desmond said he has complete confidence in Espinosa. He believes Espinosa will be able to pick up the torch and carry on for the infield while he mends from the oblique injury with little lost in production.

"Espinosa is going to be fine," Desmond said. "He is heating up. He is playing good at short. He is just as capable of doing anything on the field that I am. So I don't really feel too bad about it."

With Desmond out at least two weeks, it will be Espinosa, already a top defender, taking over at shortstop and Steve Lombardozzi managing second base. Mark DeRosa will be asked to be a backup infielder. He is back from missing six weeks with a similar oblique strain.

"He is an old guy, so I am still in pretty good shape," Desmond joked. "I am hoping that it is quicker than six weeks."

But in the bigger picture, with starter Jayson Werth seemingly close to returning from a fractured wrist, do the Nationals feel a little snake-bit here with Desmond now out? Have they missed another chance to trot out a completely healthy starting nine?

"There is a sense of we almost had everybody back," Espinosa said. "Hopefully, after these two weeks Desi will be ready to go and this oblique will have calmed down."

And for the mechanics of playing shortstop again, something he did 259 times in the minors but only a handful of times in the majors, it will take some work and practice.

"The long throws are the throws you don't make at second base," Espinosa said. "Reading the ball off the bat is totally different the way the ball spins. The first few games I was there, I had Ian in the dugout helping me position-wise so I could kind of get a feel for it. It comes back.

"I haven't been able to take too many ground balls, but I have probably taken them once or twice over there, just trying to get some long throws and double play feeds when I had a couple of off-days. (Being) back to your natural position, you just understand it."

Espinosa also believes that they could not have a better infielder than Lombardozzi to take over at second base, because the kid is always at the park early to get in defensive work, and he also has a hit in 14 of his last 16 games.

"I know Lombo takes extra ground balls when he is not starting in left field," Espinosa said. "So he has always stayed on top of second base."

That is why the season is 162 games. Now, fresh off a split of their nearest competitor, the Nationals must forge ahead without their starting shortstop for at least half a month. This will be another test the Nationals will need to pass if they have hopes of maintaining their lead.

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