Espinosa’s groundball approach paying dividends (Soriano, Rodriguez notes)

VIERA, Fla. - Want to get a good indication of just how well Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa is hitting in spring training? Check out his batting practice session and see how many sharp ground balls are rocketing off his bat.

A 1-for-3 day in Friday’s 4-3 loss to the Tigers upped his Grapefruit League batting average to .316, and continued to dispel any worries about Espinosa’s decision to strengthen his torn left rotator cuff instead of opting for offseason surgery. He’s been particularly strong from the left side of the plate this spring.

“Just trying to stay with my approach, just really trying to stay down on the ball and attack the ball and not fall back on my back side,” he said. “Just trying to stick with my plan in BP, trying to hit hard ground balls just so I maintain the right bat path, even though I’m not putting on any type of (power) display.”

The power will come, manager Davey Johnson insists.

“No question about it,” Johnson said. “He’s too strong.”

But while Ian Desmond clears fences during batting practice, Espinosa is content to rip sharp grounders all over the diamond.

Johnson is pleased with the mentality, especially since he thinks Espinosa spent too much of last season trying to spray the ball to the opposite field.

“He got a little too wrapped up in this oppo instead of hitting the ball where it’s pitched,” Johnson said. “Being like a lot of hitters early on, vulnerable to fastballs in. You should never see a fastball you don’t like. He’s in a position now where he’s comfortable dealing with fastballs in on him on both sides. That takes pitches away from the pitcher. ... It’s all about knowing who you are and knowing what you’re capable of doing.”

Espinosa has learned that even in a simple grounder, he can gauge whether his swing is correct.

“I want to hit a ground ball the right way,” he explained. “I don’t want to roll my wrist trying to hit a ground ball. I want to hit a sharp ground ball with good backspin on it that’s going to skip through the infield. I don’t want to get in the bad habit of dropping my back side again. Everything I do in BP is making sure that front shoulder is really going downward so my back side stays up and I’m not collapsing.”

Taking the approach from BP into games has been as seamless transition for Espinosa. He’s finding himself in the mode to hit, not just in position to see the ball and be ready to hit.

“It gives me something to work on,” he said. “In BP, I’d always try to work on getting extended, getting the barrel on the ball and drive the ball. Not hit home runs, but hit the ball in the gap, hit the ball hard. I’m kind of to the point where I don’t need to do that. If I get a good pitch, I’ll drive it. I’m actually working on something in BP and taking a plan to BP, it’ll translate into something in the game.”

Notes: Rafael Soriano will still pitch Saturday, but that outing will come in a minor league game and not in Port St. Lucie against the Mets. Johnson said Soriano is still recovering from his Thursday root canal.

“He’s not 100 percent,” Johnson said.

The change will also alter Johnson’s plans to have Soriano pitch in back-to-back games next week. Instead of working consecutive outings on March 26 and 27, he’ll probably do so March 27 and 28, Johnson said.

Right-hander Henry Rodriguez had another interesting outing Friday, loading the bases in the seventh on a double and two walks before extricating himself from the jam by allowing only a sacrifice fly.

“He just needs to pitch,” Johnson said. “I want him to use more of his off-speed stuff today and he did that and he was outstanding. He’s still trying to get his arm in shape, his release points in shape. That happens to power pitchers. This is like the first half of spring. He was kind of limited throwing off the mound, but I think he’ll be fine.”

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