Johnson on Espinosa’s struggles, his improved bench

ST. LOUIS - Danny Espinosa battled a bone bruise in his left shoulder down the stretch this season, an injury that really put him in a rut at the plate.

The Nationals’ second baseman got a cortisone shot on Sept. 17, and it helped him turn things around for a stretch, as he hit .400 over his next seven games. Over his final nine regular season contests, however, Espinosa’s struggles returned. He batted just .103 with 12 strikeouts in 29 at-bats, and then went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and a strangely timed sacrifice bunt yesterday in his playoff debut.

Nats manager Davey Johnson was asked today whether the shoulder is still bothering Espinosa or whether his recent struggles are related to something else.

“Yeah, he’s healthy. I think he’s just a little amped up,” Johnson said. “He finished the season being a little overly aggressive. I think that the situation’s kind of pushing him to be a little overly aggressive. But he’s talented. He’s smart. He’ll be all right.”

The Nationals and Cardinals both battled the shadows that crept onto the Busch Stadium field yesterday, and they’ll do so again today as we’ve got another afternoon game.

Johnson didn’t seem too perturbed about having to deal with the shadows, given that hitters are used to battling sun-related elements. But he did seem worried about how the game times for the upcoming Division Series game(s) at Nationals Park could impact things for outfielders on both teams.

“The one I’m more concerned about is at home. I hope it’s not 4 o’clock,” Johnson said. “We have a terrible sun field, and I’d hate for games to be decided because of the sun.”

Bryce Harper called the sun at Nats Park the “Sun Monster,” given how it terrorizes outfielders in the mid- to late-afternoon hours. Major League Baseball still has not announced the times for Games 3-5 of the Division Series, but the Nats are waiting to see when they’ll be playing and whether the Sun Monster will be making an appearance.

And I promise, as soon as we learn of the game times for the Nationals’ home games, I’ll let you know. I’m not holding out on you.

Johnson talked throughout much of spring training about how much he was looking to improve his bench over the one the Nationals had in 2011. He kept left-handed bopper Chad Tracy, has relied on rookies Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi, and has called upon the speed and overall improved play of Roger Bernadina.

Yesterday, we saw how valuable Johnson’s improved bench can be. His decision to go with Tracy as a pinch-hitter in the eighth forced Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to go to left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski. That then allowed Johnson to turn to Moore, who slapped that two-run game-winning single to right.

“The only time you really manage is after about the fifth or sixth inning when it’s your bench against his bullpen, and visa versa. It has to be flexible,” Johnson said. “You need guys that can get on and run, your table-setters, but you’ve got to have run producers. Obviously, last year, we were more a table-setting kind of bench, with speed and defense on the bench.

“But that’s the only time really you control the match-ups, and having the bench that I have this year, with some guys that can drive in runs, is big. It makes it easier for me.”

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