Waiting for word on Espinosa

Another half-game has been chipped off the Nationals’ lead in the National League East.

Atlanta won again last night, beating the Marlins to move within five games of the Nats in the division. They’re making a charge now.

The Nats will get a chance to respond against a reeling Dodgers team which has lost eight of its last 11 games and is currently a game back of the second NL Wild Card spot. It’ll be Jordan Zimmermann going against Aaron Harang tonight in the opener of a three-game set.

The Dodgers’ pitching alignment for this series had been uncertain as of a couple days ago, so the Nats weren’t exactly sure who they’d be getting tonight. The fact that it’s Harang, however, might benefit Michael Morse, who hopes to return to the lineup after missing the last four games with a left wrist injury.

The right-handed Harang doesn’t throw especially hard (his fastball averages just over 90 mph) and isn’t a pound-them-in-on-the-hands type of a guy. A hard-throwing starter would be tougher on Morse, who has been dealing with some pain in his wrist when taking cuts at pitches biting in on him.

We’ll see this afternoon if Morse is cleared to take batting practice. That’ll obviously be the first step towards the left fielder getting back in the Nationals’ lineup.

Morse isn’t the only guy who we’ll be getting an injury update on later today. Danny Espinosa went for an MRI yesterday on his left shoulder, which has been bothering him of late and likely led to him going 0-for-11 with nine strikeouts in the recent series against the Braves.

Manager Davey Johnson said after Sunday’s game in Atlanta that he was “very concerned” about Espinosa. The Nationals are prepared to give their second baseman the entire series against the Dodgers off, and they’re just left hoping he won’t be out much longer than that. It was concerning, however, when we heard that Espinosa had been asking Adam LaRoche about the symptoms he felt last season prior to needing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.

espinosa-grey-fielding-col-sidebar.jpgIf the Nats are without Espinosa for their postseason run, it would be yet another major blow to a team which has suffered a litany of injuries to key players this season. Espinosa has been wildly inconsistent from an offensive perspective this year, but he’s turned things around at the plate since the All-Star break, hitting nine home runs and posting a slash line of .272/.323/.449 in that time.

In addition, Espinosa’s defense has been fantastic even through all of the offensive peaks and valleys. His 7.3 UZR (a stat which measures defensive ability) is considered quite good, and ranks second-best among NL second basemen this season.

Fans have been frustrated by his prolonged slumps, but the fact of the matter is that Espinosa’s presence in the Nationals’ lineup gives them a legitimate power presence from 1-7 in the order when everyone’s healthy, something very few other World Series contenders bring to the table. Kurt Suzuki’s recent improvements at the plate make it even more of a relentless offensive attack from 1-8.

Of course, Steve Lombardozzi is a plenty-capable replacement should Espinosa be out for a significant stretch. He can slide in, provide solid defense and get on base at a nice clip out of the eight hole in the lineup. Lombardozzi’s range and arm aren’t quite as good as Espinosa’s, however, and he doesn’t bring nearly as much pop with the bat.

Given how Lombardozzi has played in extended stretches this season, the Nats would likely be just fine should Espinosa be sidelined. But make no doubt, it would be a hit to their World Series hopes.

After all, there’s a reason why Johnson stuck with Espinosa through all his struggles this season. The Nationals’ skipper knows what Espinosa can do when he’s healthy and clicking.

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