With Johnson as instructor, second base will become classroom

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The class will convene sometime in the next couple of days on the half field at Space Coast Stadium. Nationals manager Davey Johnson will assume the role of teacher, working with several players on how to be a better second baseman.

It’s Johnson’s positional version of post-graduate study for guys like Anthony Rendon, a natural third baseman currently blocked by Ryan Zimmerman on the Nationals’ depth chart, and Zach Walters, a farmhand who figures learning a new position might increase his value and accelerate his movement through the organization. Danny Espinosa is on the class roster, too, because Johnson thinks he might benefit from some remedial coursework since he’s a converted shortstop.

“Espi’s still leaving himself a little vulnerable, (which) I don’t like,” explained Johnson. “Espi’s got a college degree in second. He don’t have his doctorate yet, and he ain’t got the masters, either. So we’re going to have a little classroom session.”

For Johnson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and took courses at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University when he was winning three Gold Gloves with the Orioles, is happy to pay it forward. When he broke into the majors back in 1965, he had the fundamentals down pat because he had two pretty good teachers in former Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson and ex-Pirates second sacker Bill Mazeroski, two friends who took him under their wings. Richardson won five Gold Gloves and Mazeroski eight.

“Maz arguably turned the double play better than any human being alive,” Johnson said. “His footwork was unbelievable. Neither one of them, that I can remember, ever got taken out at second. Neither did I, because I had their tutelage.”

So what’s the trick to playing second base?

“It’s every little detail is accounted for, from where your glove is, where your feet are, where you set up, where you land, the timing. It takes practice,” Johnson said. “It’s, I think, the prettiest play in baseball. It’s not the shortstop turning it, it’s the second baseman turning the double play. To me, that’s a beautiful pirouette. A lot of big league second basemen totally butcher it. But when it’s done properly, it’s just a beautiful thing - and you never get hurt.”

Johnson will be concentrating on the footwork required to properly play the position, particularly while turning a double play. For guys who were shortstops or third basemen - like Rendon and Espinosa - fluid footwork is the key to making sure they’re protecting themselves from possible injury. Johnson said that many former shortstops are befuddled by the position because they’re so used to moving to the bag and having the play in front of them. As a result, some wind up dragging their feet across the base, which leaves them vulnerable.

“It’s how you go about practicing, the way you do it so it protects your legs,” he said.

Shortstops completing a throw to second base on a double play, for instance, have a weapon in the baseball. Second basemen, on the other hand, are often exposed to a runner barreling in at them in hopes of disrupting the play.

“The shortstop, you throw it right at (the runner’s) coconut and he’s going to get out of the way,” Johnson said. “But the second baseman has an X on his back. Everybody likes to break up a double play.”

Because Espinosa played both shortstop and second base at Long Beach State, he’s a little further along in his studies. But Walters, who came to Johnson and said he wanted to work at second base, and Rendon, the Nats’ first-round draft pick in June, are newcomers to the position. Johnson checked with Bob Boone, the team’s vice president of player development, and got the go-ahead to put Walters through the paces. The manager has been waiting to work with Rendon and said it would take a couple of weeks of intense training before he was ready to play the position.

“It is a very interesting art,” Johnson said. “Once you get comfortable with it, where you don’t even have to look at the bag, you know where the ball is, you know where first base is - it’s a beautiful thing.”

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