The Washington Times - September 22, 2011, 12:10AM

PHILADELPHIA — Even when the Nationals were at their lowest points this season, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a player in that clubhouse that didn’t feel they were making progress. Even if it was sometimes difficult to see through extended losing skids and frustrating losses that seemed to pile up.

The progress was in the way the game was being played — but also on an individual basis by those who were playing it. It was in seeing Ian Desmond blossom into the type of hitter everyone expected him to be, in watching he and Danny Espinosa grow and mature together in the middle infield. It was in seeing their young pitchers excel and the emergence of Michael Morse as a feared power threat.


It was in Espinosa’s power playing at the major league level and Wilson Ramos’ doing the same while he adjusted to life as an everyday catcher.

The progress was in the Nationals’ youth continuing to develop while, at times, carrying a team light on veterans. Ryan Zimmerman was hurt for two months. Jayson Werth’s production was nowhere near where expected. Adam LaRoche’s labrum tore and tore until surgery was the only answer. 

“It’s tremendously weighing on youngsters,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Because they want to win ballgames and so they try to do more.”

Johnson knows what it’s like to break into the major leagues. But he did it with Brooks Robinson playing third base, Frank Robinson in the same lineup and Boog Powell manning first. “I kind of went unnoticed,” Johnson said.

It’s been a little different for the Nationals young players. 

“Without those (veterans), they’ve had to stand out. I think they’ve had a great year.”

Putting aside the larger picture for a moment, they also had a great night on Wednesday, particularly Espinosa and Ramos who each contributed a two-run homer that gave the Nationals a lead. Both were nursing minor injuries after the game with Espinosa taking a pitch off his right foot and Ramos feeling some tightness in his left quad when legging out an infield hit in the fifth. Both insisted they’d be fine to play tomorrow though Johnson said he’d expect to give Ramos a day off. 

But back to their offensive showing…

Ramos’ homer simply increased his hold on the Nationals’ single-season record for home runs in a season by a catcher. Espinosa’s set a new one. With his 21st home run of the season, Espinosa became the first rookie in franchise history to hit that many. He left Ryan Zimmerman (20, 2006) and Brad Wilkerson (20, 2002) behind as he seized the mark for himself. 

“It’s a good feeling,” Espinosa said, his 21st home run coming off former Long Beach State teammate Vance Worley for a little extra satisfaction. “I enjoy having the record but I didn’t really think about it during the game. I was just thinking ‘Hey, we have a lead now, let’s continue to do it and win this ballgame.’”

For Ramos, the home run was simply added to the already large — and extremely head-shaking — proof that the Nationals pulled off quite a heist at the 2010 trade deadline when they swapped Matt Capps for him. In his first full season at the big leagues that has gotten him rave reviews for his abilities as a receiver and a game caller, Ramos is hitting .267 with a .334 on-base percentage and 14 home runs.

“I feel great right now,” Ramos said. “I don’t care about my first few months. I was struggling, but right now I feel great. I’m working on my at-bats, trying to help the team with my offense and now I feel good. It’s more important how you finish than how you start.”