The Washington Times - September 8, 2011, 12:55PM

Nationals manager Davey Johnson made out his lineup a little differently this morning for Game 1 of the Nationals straight doubleheader this afternoon with the Los Angeles. Instead of slotting Danny Espinosa in at second base, where he’s played all but four games this season, he wrote Steve Lombardozzi’s name there.

Lombardozzi, the Columbia, Md. native and son of former major leaguer Stephen Lombardozzi, made his major league debut Tuesday night, walking in his only at-bat as a pinch hitter. He’ll get a chance to get that first hit out of the way and, for the Nationals, it could be a harbinger of things to come. Lombardozzi will play primarily and second base and shortstop, meaning one of the Nationals two young infielders Ian Desmond and Espinosa will sit for him to play.

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“I’m just going to give him a little experience out there,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Desi and Espi are my short and second combination. I’m not trying to confuse them about that situation — but this kid can play. He can be a good part of the mix here… to me, he still projects like a starter candidate.”

Johnson, who compared Lombardozzi to a guy like Ben Zobrist — who has played both second base and right field for the Tampa Bay Rays this season, said he’s spoke with Espinosa and Desmond about the situation and didn’t imagine it’d come as a shock to either. 

A few weeks ago, I broached the topic with Espinosa, who understood the way things work in September but admitted that he was reluctant to sit for an extended period just to give someone else experience.

“I’m not going to give up my spot just to help someone,” Espinosa said then. “I won’t do that. … If that’s what happens, that’s what happens. I hope that doesn’t happen.

Asked about the possibility of sitting to give experience to others, Espinosa was emphatic about the work he and Desmond had put in.

“I think we need the opportunity to finish our years,” he said. “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.

“No one’s talked to us and said that that’s what we’re going to do. I can’t speak for Ian, but the way I feel is that we’ve worked too hard and spent every day working together for someone to come up in September and all of a sudden for us to take the backseat. It’d be different if Desmond and I were 35 and 36 years old, huge difference.”

At this point in the season, while both Desmond and Espinosa have played extremely well defensively, and visibly improving together as the season has gone along with their communication and their feel for one another out there, their seasons have been on something of divergent paths.

Espinosa came out guns blazing, with an offensive first half that was one for the record books. His power was impressive, he hit 16 homers, 15 doubles and walked 31 times and while his .242 average seemed low, it was a minor detail compared to the quality at-bats he was putting together. In the second half, those numbers have all tumbled. He’s hit .206 with three home runs and a .285 on-base percentage. In particular most recently, Espinosa has struggled. Between Monday afternoon’s game and Tuesday night’s Espinosa struck out seven straight times before a ground out on Tuesday night.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Johnson said. “I’ll have conversations with him but I thought he was getting a little defensive. Especially from the left side, he was letting the ball get too deep… I didn’t like that. I felt like he was, when you’re almost protecting against striking out and then he was taking pitches. Just stay aggressive. 

“I don’t think he’s tired. I think he’s mentally tired, not physically. I think he tries so hard and he works so hard, sometimes that can work against you. Ideally I wouldn’t have played him as much as I have but I really enjoy watching him play and that experience is invaluable for him. He’s a heck of a player and he’s going to only get better.”

Desmond, on the other hand, struggled for much of the first part of the season — even pouring into the second half. Desmond hit .223 with a .264 on base percentage in the first half, along with three homers. In the second half, he’s hitting .281 with a .338 on-base percentage and four home runs. He’s been particularly good as of late hitting .302 with a .348 on-base percentage in that spot in the last 20 games. He’s raised his season numbers in that span from .229/.277/.321 and with a .598 OPS, to .244/.291/.354 and with a .642 OPS.

As for Lombardozzi, he hit over .300 at both Double-A and Triple-A this season, and it’s difficult to find a Nationals official who doesn’t rave about him both offensively and defensively. 

“He’s got a good pedigree,” Johnson said. “His dad was a smart player, good player. He’s not the same kind of player but he’s an awful good player. He’s kind of what I call a foxhole guy.”