The Washington Times - August 29, 2011, 10:39PM

ATLANTA — The other day I approached Danny Espinosa in the clubhouse to talk about the upcoming September call-ups and how the likely addition of Steve Lombardozzi might affect the playing time of him and/or shortstop Ian Desmond. Espinosa, who has played in each of the Nationals 132 games, understands the process. It was only last year that the Nationals brought him up in September and Adam Kennedy stepped aside.

But this is different. There is no veteran waiting to move over for Lombardozzi. There is just Desmond and Espinosa in the middle infield and both, Espinosa felt, deserve the opportunity to finish what they started this year, together.

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It’s going to be an interesting situation if and when Lombardozzi, hitting .318 at Triple-A, does get added to the Nationals major league roster this September, and I wrote about that situation for the off-day story today.

Espinosa’s words were strong, admitting that he had no inclination to “give up my spot just to help someone,” and that “Desmond and I have busted (it) all year and I think we need the opportunity to finish our years. We’ve worked too hard and we’ve played every single game. We’re two young ballplayers. It’s not like we’re two older guys that are on the way out or something.”

I’m not guaranteeing that either will be asked to give up playing time, but if the Nationals call Lombardozzi up, they won’t do it just to have him sit on the bench. He’ll get at least some playing time. 

But Espinosa’s reaction was passionate, and I don’t see what’s not to like about that if you’re a Nationals fan. 

It’s not the first time he’s reacted in such a manner to a particular issue. In early June, I asked Espinosa why, in his opinion, he was getting hit with so many pitches (he leads the National League with 16 HBP). He figured pitchers were going to pitch him inside — he’s a rookie, brush him off the plate a little, etc. — he looked at me that day and said “They can come inside all they want. I’m not moving.” And when it comes to the Nationals home attendance, which it’s no secret is lacking, Espinosa recently decided that he’d try and do something about it.

Tuesday afternoon, about an hour before tremors shook the D.C. area with a 5.8 earthquake, Espinosa (@dannyespinosa18) tweeted that he would be eating lunch at Baja Fresh near his apartment and he had four tickets to give to the first to arrive and meet him there. It was something that he thought about that morning, it’s not like he’d been planning it for weeks, but when asked why he did it, his response was interesting for a 24-year-old rookie: “I’m thinking about doing it more often just so more people will be able to come out to the games and experience the games and maybe we’ll be able to get more people to come on a consistent basis.”

The Nationals are on the verge of becoming a team to contend with, they’ve got unprecedented talent coming through the organization and it doesn’t seem so far away that they’ll see things come together the way they’ve been hoping. Winning games will put fans in the stands. But it doesn’t hurt for them to have the players expected to be in uniform for years to come taking it personally that they’re not there yet.

He’s tailed off in the second half, hitting just .204 with a .277 on-base percentage and two home runs, compared to a .242 average with a .322 OBP and 16 homers before the break. But some adjustment had to be expected on the part of the National League pitchers, now it’s Espinosa’s responsibility to make the necessary adjustments back to the league.

– Which brings me to Desmond, Espinosa’s infield counterpart. In the first half of the season, Desmond’s numbers looked vastly different than that of the rookie shortstop who hit .269 with 10 homers in 2010. The league, it seems, had adjusted to him. 

But Davey Johnson’s confidence didn’t waver in his young shortstop. Recently, Desmond and Johnson sat down for a few chats, as Johnson reinforced what he’s been saying about Desmond all along: he sees the same potential in him he saw in Barry Larkin — a comparison he admitted he did not make lightly.

Desmond has significantly improved in the last 30 games — hitting .286 with a .336 on-base percentage and a .420 slugging percentage. He’s hitting the ball with authority, even when they’re outs. He’s striking out less and grounding out less. He’s becoming the hitter he has been and knew he could be this year — and a lot of that change coincides with his escape from the No. 8 hole in the lineup. 

Johnson is fond of saying that Desmond, in his own mind, probably fancies himself a No. 3 hitter. Of course, the Nationals have a pretty good one of those in Ryan Zimmerman, but Johnson said last week that sometimes it helps when the manager hits a player more where the player feels he should be hitting. If only for the confidence it instills. 

Desmond has been particularly good out of the leadoff spot this time around, hitting .306 with a .370 on-base percentage and a .429 slugging percentage in 12 games.

It’s an improvement the Nationals were waiting for from Desmond — largely why they weren’t actively shopping him as much as listening to other team’s inquiries about him around the trade deadline — and one that could help him salvage his season offensively. 

He’s no less passionate about the game than Espinosa and it would mean a great deal to him to see the Nationals as winners (as one of their longest-tenured players). As much as what’s coming for the Nationals means a lot (Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, etc.) so, too, does Desmond and Espinosa playing to the high potential everyone believes they have.

– For another perspective, I turned to veteran infielder Alex Cora who has been on winning teams, been a starter and understands the bench/mentor role. Cora has worked a lot with both Espinosa and Desmond this year, as did Jerry Hairston Jr. before he was traded, physically as well as mentally about the challenges that come with your first few years as a major leaguer. He sees great improvement, but still work to be done.

“I think they’ve done a good job learning with each other, especially defensively,” Cora said. “They’re getting better. I think they’re taking the right steps to become a good double play combination. They communicate and they’re still learning. I think the process, although it was already set up in spring training, as soon as Davey got here, it became ‘This is what we’re doing.’ The way that they were seeing they’re playing everyday, even if they’re hot, if they’re struggling, if they’re tired, not tired. They’re in a stage right now where their development is very important.

“I think they’re very mature kids. They want to be better. They have a lot of talent. Tool-wise, they’re up there — and I’ve played with a lot of guys. They need to get better and they are getting better, like you can tell Desi the last few weeks, taking pitches, going the other way, battling at-bats, defensively, too. He’s still got a ways to go but he’s getting better.”