New offensive approach paying dividends for Espinosa

VIERA, Fla. - Word down here in the south is that you fine folks back up in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia areas are about to be hit by a decent little snow storm.

Hope everyone stays safe up there and doesn’t have too much hatred toward me for being in 75-degree weather right about now.

If it makes you feel any better, I’m just about to take off for a 7:30 a.m. trip to Clearwater, a 170-mile drive across the entire width of Florida. The five-plus hours of driving I’ll end up putting in today should help balance out the hours of traffic many of you will need to sit in throughout the day.

The Nationals will take on the Phillies at 1:05 p.m. this afternoon, and we’ll get what should be a fantastic pitching matchup (at least, for maybe four innings or so) as Stephen Strasburg and Roy Halladay will take the hill.

Nats manager Davey Johnson will probably look for about 60-70 pitches from Strasburg, and four frames will likely be his target. This is the third time through the Nationals rotation this spring, but even after today, Strasburg will likely have four more starts before the regular season kicks off.

The Nats are in no hurry to build their starters up and will continue to do so at an incremental pace.

It’s only 10 games into spring, but one thing is already clear from watching the Nationals thus far: Danny Espinosa is in a good place offensively.

Danny-Espinosa-At-Bat.jpgEspinosa found out early in the offseason that he had a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder, and instead of having surgery to repair the damage (a procedure which would have cost him the first two months of the regular season), Espinosa opted to rehabilitate the injury, building up the muscles around the rotator cuff in order to strengthen the shoulder.

His health, one way or the other, was going to be a big story this spring. And to this point, Espinosa has looked strong and insists that he feels great.

The results match up with the positive comments. Espinosa is 8-for-22 (.364) this spring, with seven singles, a double, two RBIs, two walks and a stolen base. Yesterday, hitting left-handed, he went 2-for-3 with two runs batted in, and was very nearly a perfect 3-for-3 if only he’d been a split-second quicker and beaten out an attempted bunt base-hit (or gotten the benefit of a close call).

“He’s getting shorter, short contact,” Johnson said after yesterday’s game. “Looks a whole lot better. Really pleased with his spring so far, the way he’s working. He had some real good at-bats today.”

Since Johnson has been managing the Nationals, he’s been trying to get Espinosa to shorten his swing, making it less of a lengthy, uppercut motion and more direct to the ball. Johnson’s reasoning has been that Espinosa has enough raw power that he doesn’t need to have a home-run swing; if he makes more contact and just focuses on hitting the ball hard where it’s pitched, the homers will come.

That’s a strategy Espinosa has embraced this spring. It started in the offseason when he would take one-handed swings while hitting left-handed, taking his bottom hand (the right hand) and working on being direct to the ball and trying to hit hard groundballs. That work, which was largely done because the injury was limiting his ability to take full swings, paid off.

Espinosa now feels like his top hand is firing towards the ball when swinging left-handed, and he’s made a conscious effort in his sessions off a tee and during batting practice to hit hard groundballs the right way. Doing so is reinforcing the proper swing path and he hopes will generate more backspin on balls he puts in play, which helps the ball travel farther.

If he continues on this path, he feels it will also help him cut down on his lofty strikeout totals. Espinosa struck out 189 times last season, most in the National League, and he has 355 over the last two seasons combined.

“I’m not trying to swing hard, I’m not trying to be that much quicker. It’s the right direction to the ball,” Espinosa said. “If your swing is as hard as anybody’s, but you have the wrong bat path, you’re still not going to hit. For me, it was just re-training my bottom hand to work down on the ball to have the right bat path to make contact. ...

“I’m not trying to go up there with a mindset of, ‘Don’t strike out.’ I’m just trying to go up there and not try to hit the ball to left field, not try to pull the ball, I’m just trying to hit the ball hard back up the middle. (Then I can) kind of react if it’s a little bit in, a little bit out. If I’m a little tardy, the ball’s going to go where it’s supposed to go. But I feel great right now, and like I said, my timing is really starting to come right now. I feel good.”

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