The Washington Times - September 21, 2011, 11:41AM

PHILADELPHIA — It happened quickly, so there wasn’t much time to admire his work but when Danny Espinosa connected with Cliff Lee’s 1-0 offering in the second inning Tuesday night, it disappeared over the right center field fence at Citizens Bank Park and brought with it a milestone stat for the Nationals’ second baseman.

It was a milestone for Lee, too. He’s given up 17 home runs this season, but never more than one to any player — except Espinosa. To him, he’s allowed three.

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Espinosa opened the game 3-for-3 against Lee, making him 6-for-6 in his last six at-bats against him. He ground out in his final plate appearance vs. Lee last night, but the fact remains: Danny Espinosa seemingly owns Cliff Lee.

“It’s not easy,” Espinosa said. “It’s just a guy that I really have to stick with my approach against. He hits his spots so well that I have to stick with my approach truly because he can get his pitches in and out. Everything he throws is a strike. For me I just have to really see him in the zone and try to get a good pitch to hit.”

Espinosa’s back stiffened up a little bit between games, nothing out of the ordinary after playing nine innings in the afternoon, but when Nationals manager Davey Johnson asked him about Game 2 there was no way Espinosa was going to miss it. 

“He definitely wanted to face Lee,” Johnson said.

“When you know you’ve had a little success off a pitcher it gives you confidence,” Espinosa said. “You want to get in the box, you want to get up there, you want to hit. Every player has those few pitchers that he wants at-bats against.”

It would seem strange for Lee to be that pitcher for any hitter. There are actually only 10 players who have hit three or more home runs off Lee in his entire major league career (Paul Konerko owns the title with an astounding six). It’s a list that also includes Ken Griffey Jr., Juan Rivera and Carlos Lee — and Espinosa, a rookie.

That’s not all. Of players with 10 at-bats or more against Lee, Espinosa has had the highest percentage of success (a .700 AVG) and the highest slugging percentage of that group at 1.700.

Espinosa was careful not to give away any secrets, though, when asked a few times after the game about his dominance of one of the game’s best pitchers.

“We all have different approaches based on the pitcher,” he said. “With him,  I really stick with my approach and so far it’s worked out good.”

– Putting off to the side for a moment the pitcher Tuesday night’s home run came off of, it was an important one for Espinosa in its own right. It has been a dramatically slower second half for the second baseman, who hit 16 home runs before the All-Star break and has taken almost 2 1/2 months to reach the 20-homer mark. But when the season is over, chances are most people will remember not when they came but the total number — and 20 is a benchmark.

He is now just the third rookie second baseman in major league history to hit 20 or more home runs, joining Dan Uggla (27 for Florida in 2006) and Alexei Ramirez (21 for Chicago White Sox in 2008) and ties the franchise’s single-season record for rookie home runs.

One more and he’ll leave Ryan Zimmerman (20, 2006) and Brad Wilkerson (20, 2002 for Expos) in his dust and own the record himself. 

“It’s a good number,” Espinosa said. “I didn’t think too much of it when it happened. All my teammates congratulated me but I was more concerned that we had an early lead.”

They did have that, against the Phillies. The same Phillies team bound for the postseason with the best record in the National League that is just 8-8 against the Nationals with two to play. Espinosa’s contributions in that matter can’t be overlooked. Of his 20 home runs, almost half (9) have come against either Atlanta or Philadelphia and four of them have come off pitchers named Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee.

“I didn’t know what our record was against them,” Espinosa said Tuesday night. “I know we always play them well. Win or lose I know we always play them well — and the Phillies know that, too. The Phillies know that we’re not going to come and be a push over.”