Marty Niland: Lombardozzi needs more time at second base

It's obvious that the Nationals won't fix their offensive struggles overnight. Michael Morse is still weeks away with a strained lat muscle. Jayson Werth's absence with a broken wrist has left a huge hole in the middle of the lineup. Bryce Harper has been very good so far, but he's not Superman, and Ryan Zimmerman is working his way back into form after missing 14 games with a shoulder injury.

That means manager Davey Johnson is going to have to make use of the tools he has to maximize the offense. One move he can make to help the team at the plate is giving Steve Lombardozzi some more time at second base, at least in a platoon with Danny Espinosa, to take advantage of the switch-hitting rookie's .378 average against right-handers.

Espinosa and his strikeout-laden bat have been hurting the team long enough. Espinosa whiffed a team-high 39 times in his first 29 games, tied for most in the National League going into Thursday night's game. He didn't strike out in the series finale against Pittsburgh, but he did hit into a double play with two men on in the fourth inning.

Lombardozzi has made the most of his opportunities, with a .382 OBP and a .732 OPS in 23 games. In his only start at second base this season, on April 16, he went 4-for-5, driving in two runs. That's as many RBI in one game as Espinosa has managed all season. Lombardozzi has also amassed almost as many hits in 30 at-bats this season (18) as Espinosa managed in 110 at-bats through Thursday night (21).

In clutch hitting situations, with two outs and runners in scoring position, Lombardozzi is 3-for-9, while Espinosa has yet to come up with a hit in six at-bats, striking out twice. Even with less than two outs, Espinosa hasn't hit safely with men in scoring position, while Lombardozzi is 4-for-13 with RISP.

Another key difference between the two comes when the count reaches two strikes. Lombardozzi has reached base seven times in 21 plate appearances, with three hits, and three walks, and he's been hit by a pitch once. He's only gotten that third strike five times. Espinosa, meanwhile, has a .216 OBP, with just eight hits, eight walks and a sacrifice fly in 74 plate appearances. He strikes out 60 percent of the time a pitcher gets two strikes on him, almost twice Lombardozzi's rate.

As MASNsports.com's Dan Kolko pointed out this week, Johnson's patience and loyalty probably won't allow him to bench Espinosa completely, and that move wouldn't solve all the Nationals' problems. However, giving Lombardozzi more starts against right-handers and opportunities to hit in key situations will give the Nationals better opportunities to drive in the runners they've been stranding all season.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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