Middle infield duo excelling defensively

BOSTON - There was a time not too long ago when the Nationals’ middle infield defense was considered a liability.

OK, their defense as a whole was a liability, with the team leading the majors in errors in both 2009 and 2010. But up the middle, the Nats struggled mightily.

This season has been a different story. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have been exceptional defensively, making the routine plays and the fancy ones, as well.

Today, both guys flashed the leather, with Desmond ranging at least 25 feet to the right field side of second base to grab a David Ortiz grounder and gun him at first, and Espinosa making a leaping grab with his back to the infield in the sixth inning, a key play which might have saved a run.

“Those two are incredible,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “As a matter of fact, there’s been a lot of balls where, especially early on, I kind of gave up on thinking it was a base hit and find myself having to bust it over (to first). Now I know, if it’s on the ground, I better get there.

“Tonight, you know, Danny makes a couple great plays and then Desi comes across and runs like 100 feet to get to that ball. They’re pretty good up there.”

While their overall defensive statistics aren’t stellar (Desmond has eight errors this season, tied for fourth-most among shortstops, while Espinosa has four errors), both guys have made bunches of highlight-reel plays and have cut down plenty of would-be baserunners.

It also seems that the vast majority of the errors they have made have not come back to haunt the Nats. There have been very few glaring miscues which have turned games around, which obviously pleases manager Davey Johnson.

“They’re outstanding,” Johnson said. “They take a lot of pride in their defense. They don’t take any of their offense out to the field. Desi is a tremendous athlete. So is Espi. They continue to make the tough plays look routine.”

We know about Espinosa’s struggles at the plate this season, but as Johnson points out, he hasn’t carried any frustration over to the defensive side of things.

“I take a lot of pride in my defense. I work hard every day,” Espinosa said. “Just because of whatever’s going on at the plate, it has nothing to do with what you can do defensively. So to me, if you’re struggling at the plate, there’s another way to help the team, and that’s to go out and play defense, make your plays and do whatever you can to prevent runs.”

“I think we’re playing really well. (Desmond and I) worked together a lot last year as far as really getting to know each other, and now, I think we have a really good idea of what we can do. We talk about stuff and make movements in the field when we’re facing guys, so I think Ian and I work real well together.”

The pitchers are noticing, as well.

“You can’t say enough about the progress those guys have made over the last couple years,” Tyler Clippard said. “And even our defense as a whole. I remember two or three years ago, we were the worst in the league. And now we’re probably the best.

“We’re very fortunate to have them. That’s a big reason why our pitching staff is the best in the league.”

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