KISSIMMEE, Fla. - It has been Danny Espinosa's nemesis for more than three seasons now, occasionally disappearing but almost always resurfacing to raise doubts about the Nationals infielder. And it is rearing its ugly head again this spring.
Espinosa's left-handed swing, the one thing that has kept him from long-term success in the big leagues, remains an issue right now. After an 0-for-3 afternoon in the Nationals' 6-4 win over the Astros - to be fair, two of the outs came on bunts - he now finds himself 0-for-17 in Grapefruit League play this spring, with 14 of those at-bats coming from the left side.
Espinosa insists the problem is easy to identify.
"Just fastball timing, that's all it is," he said. "Not getting on time with the fastball. Once I get on time with the fastball, I'll go from there."
This, of course, is nothing new. Espinosa has endured through long stretches of limited production from the left side of the plate throughout his career. Total up his left-handed batting stats from the last three seasons, and you get a .201 batting average with 213 strikeouts and only 36 walks in 689 plate appearances.
And the issue with Espinosa's swing has remained constant: It tends to be long and loopy, leaving a major hole for opposing pitchers to exploit.
"Yeah, I'm seeing it," manager Dusty Baker said before today's game at Osceola County Stadium. "We're trying to help him figure it out. I'm talking to him. (Hitting coach Rick) Schu is talking to him. ... It's not that easy to do an overhaul if somebody's been doing something for a while. It's a slow process. You have to take it one step at a time, or else what you do is you confuse him. We're going to help him figure it out."
Even so, the manager acknowledges there's only so much he and his staff can do.
"It's not up to me, it's up to him," Baker said. "And it's up to us to try to help him as best we can. Because when you're at the plate, you're up there yourself. You're the only one in the box. You wish you can be in the box with them, but you can't."
Espinosa was alone in the box this afternoon, given a rare opportunity to bat leadoff so he could potentially get an extra at-bat before calling it a day. He waited until his final time up, though, to take a full swing, instead bunting in both the first and third innings. (One was a drag bunt, the other a sacrifice bunt, neither successful.) He struck out swinging in the fourth.
The Nationals have been searching for an answer to what plagues Espinosa for some time. They sent him to the minors in 2013. They tried to get him to swing exclusively right-handed last spring, only to let him go back to the left side when the season began (he enjoyed some early success before fading later in the season, coinciding with diminished playing time).
Espinosa, who has taken only three right-handed at-bats so far this spring, insisted he's not going to start staying on that side of the plate when facing righties again.
"Nah, we tried that last year," he said.
This is a particularly important spring for the 28-year-old, who entered camp the frontrunner to supplant Ian Desmond as the Nationals' starting shortstop after spending most of his big league career at second base. Nobody questions Espinosa's defensive skills, with many having believed for years he's actually a better shortstop than Desmond. And he remains a potent offensive force against left-handed pitchers, with a career .795 OPS in that matchup versus .656 against righties.
Trea Turner remains the organization's long-term answer at shortstop, though the 22-year-old only boasts four hits in 21 at-bats so far this spring himself. Veteran Stephen Drew, signed to a one-year, $3 million contract over the winter, has been better with six hits in 16 at-bats, three walks and only one strikeout.
For now, the Nationals continue to support Espinosa, believing he makes the most sense to open the season as their starting shortstop. A couple of base hits between now and April 4, of course, would help confirm their opinion.
"Last year, I didn't even hit left-handed in spring, so I'm not overly concerned," Espinosa said. "It's rhythm and timing. We worked on a couple things, trying to clear your head and go up there and get on time to take some good swings."
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