Johnson committed to Desmond, Espinosa atop lineup

VIERA, Fla. - If you’ve seen the lineups Davey Johnson has been writing up this spring, you’ve probably noticed that the Nationals manager has been experimenting with shortstop Ian Desmond as his leadoff hitter and second baseman Danny Espinosa in the two-hole.

Three weeks into Grapefruit League games, it’s no longer an experiment. It’s officially how the top of the lineup will be constructed come opening day.

“I’m not auditioning,” Johnson said. “I told them the other day, ‘You guys are my one and two.’ ”

Well, there you have it.

In 50 games in the leadoff spot last year, Desmond hit .281 with five homers and 20 RBIs and a .318 on-base percentage, totals which were far better than his overall 2011 line of a .253 average and .298 on-base percentage.

Espinosa struggled in the No. 2 spot in the lineup, however, hitting .189 with a .264 on-base percentage in 160 plate appearances.

But Johnson likes the idea of hitting his double play combination atop his lineup, and what he’s seen this spring has only reinforced his thinking.

“I knew Desi liked to lead off,” Johnson said, “and I asked Espi, ‘I know last year you liked to be hitting farther back in the order.’ And he said, ‘Skip, I’ve hit second every year in the minor leagues. I like second.’ I said, ‘I’ve got two of you guys. Do something.’ “

Johnson has been very complimentary of both Desmond and Espinosa this spring. The 26-year-old Desmond came into camp with a new stance and got off to a slow start, but after he made some adjustments at Johnson’s request, the shortstop has started to get back into a groove at the plate.

“He looks good to me,” Johnson said. “He was trying a few little different wrinkles that he picked up over the winter, but he’s back looking like he did last year and on the right track.”

With Espinosa, the Nats have been working on trying to cut a loop out of his swing when he hits left-handed, a problem which Johnson said comes out when Espinosa tries to muscle through his swing in order to avoid getting beat. The second baseman has recently made some adjustments from that side of the plate, and Johnson feels his second baseman has his timing back.

“His stroke from the right side has really been good from the time I’ve been here,” Johnson said. “His left side was a little longer, and he’s gotten shorter, it’s more direct, and he’s more powerful with that swing.

“I like where he’s at right now. He’s pretty perceptive. He’s a grinder. He’s a foxhole guy. He’s going to pay attention, he’s going to be awake. He’s everything you like in a player.”

Neither guy has great speed or a high on-base percentage for their career. But Johnson has faith that hitting Desmond atop the lineup and Espinosa right behind him will pay dividends.

“If the play’s a flop, you can blame me,” Johnson said.

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