Baker sees encouraging signs from struggling regulars

MIAMI - The numbers aren't pretty. Two full weeks into the season, three members of the Nationals' everyday lineup - Michael A. Taylor, Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa - are sporting batting averages under .172 and on-base percentages under .290.

Manager Dusty Baker, though, has seen encouraging signs from all three and is committed to each remaining in the lineup and in his current role for the foreseeable future.

That applies in particular for Taylor, who, despite his 6-for-41 one-walk start to the season, continues to hit leadoff for the Nationals while Ben Revere is recovering from an oblique strain.

"He's been struggling some to get on base," Baker said of Taylor, whose .163 on-base percentage is lowest among all qualifying National League hitters. "But he's the best we have to put in that spot right now without having to tear the rest of my lineup up."

Baker, who has acknowledged that Taylor isn't best-suited to lead off, wants the 25-year-old to focus on what he does best.

"It's just a matter of Michael swinging at strikes more than anything," the manager said. "It doesn't matter where you hit, actually. He's fouling off a lot of pitches, which puts him in a situation that makes him susceptible to strikeouts. All around the league, there's somebody that's started off poorly. We have more than one guy that's not hitting the way he's capable of hitting. But that's what happens during the season."

espinosa-gray-at-bat-sidebar.jpgEspinosa, likewise, is off to a ragged start, carrying a .161 batting average into tonight's series opener against the Marlins, with only two hits over his last 24 at-bats. That has raised questions whether the shortstop has simply fallen back into the bad habits that plagued him much of the last three seasons.

Espinosa's peripheral stats, though, tell a different story - and perhaps suggest he's been quite unlucky at the plate. His .219 batting average on balls in play is way down from his career .298 mark. His 35 percent line drive rate, meanwhile, is up considerably from his career 19 percent mark. His walk rate is up (15.8 percent versus 7.2 percent for his career) and his strikeout rate is down (23.7 percent versus 27.8 percent for his career).

"There's better at-bats than what we saw in spring training, and he's getting better," Baker said. "I just wish he'd find a few holes. That would make him and everybody else feel a lot better. Because he's hit the ball better than his average indicates. We're still working with him. He's still playing good defense. He hasn't taken his at-bats to the defensive side, which is what you have to do."

Perhaps most encouraging among the struggling regulars is Werth, who dug himself into a big hole when he opened the season 0-for-13 but slowly but surely is digging his way out of it. Since snapping the 0-fer, Werth is hitting .273 with a .360 on-base percentage and .905 OPS.

Baker remains confident those low batting averages will begin to normalize soon.

"This is, what, 11 games? This is nothing," he said. "You just don't want to get into somebody's head. You hope they get going in the next week or so, because then it's late April and sometimes panic sets in."

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