SAN FRANCISCO — If all goes according to the Washington Nationals’ plans on Friday, shortstop Ian Desmond will return to the team’s active roster and starting lineup and resume his rightful place as a stalwart on the left side of their infield.
That’s great news for the Nationals as it will bring them about as close as they’ll get to having all the members of their projected starting lineup together. (They’ll never fully get there, by the way, with Wilson Ramos out for the season.)
Desmond will rejoin a team that has gone 19-6 in his absence and that is due in no small part to who has been filling in for him in the infield. Danny Espinosa moved back to his natural position at shortstop with Desmond out and Steve Lombardozzi got a chance to go from the Nationals’ super utility man to his natural spot as an everyday second baseman.
Both more than capably handled their defensive responsibilities after the switch and have reached a comfort level at this point.
“I don’t even think about it, actually,” Espinosa said. “I go out there and we know what we need to do. I feel 100 percent comfortable.”
But perhaps even more impressive is the offense they’ve been able to put up in that stretch.
Since Desmond went on the disabled list, Espinosa and Lombardozzi have combined to hit .299 with nine doubles, three triples and six home runs. How good are those numbers? If the season was to end right now, no other National League playoff team’s duo would come within .021 points of that average in the same period.
The closest would be the Dodgers with Hanley Ramirez and Mark Ellis at .278. Atlanta’s Dan Uggla and Paul Janish hit a meager .198 in that period. Pittsburgh’s Neil Walker and Clint Barmes combined to hit .237 and Cincinnati’s Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart hit .269 since July 22.
“They’ve been really outstanding,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “I can’t say it enough. They’re professional, they’ve played great defense and the offense has been great. It’s even picked up with Desi out.”
Lombardozzi attributed some of his offensive consistency of late to simply being able to play everyday, as well as the fact that he’s now seen most of the league’s pitchers in his rookie year.
“The more consistent (at-bats) you get, the more comfortable you’re going to feel out there,” Lombardozzi said. “I’ve played the infield my whole life so I didn’t really mis a beat. When I was playing outfield, I’m definitely used to it.”
But Johnson keyed in on the position and how that has freed up Lombardozzi’s mind. Until Desmond went down, Lombardozzi had been playing predominantly in the outfield and filling in sparingly at second base.
“I think he’s more relaxed being in the infield,” Johnson said. “He feels more a complete player. That’s his position. He’s been outstanding and I think once you get comfortable in your own spot it’s easier for the other side to kick in. Shoot, he’s had a great year. Unbelievable year.”
So that left the question of what would happen to him once Desmond returns. The Nationals will have to send a player out to get Desmond back on the 25-man roster and while Lombardozzi is one of few with options remaining, that scenario appears extremely unlikely. Purely speculating on the move — and speculation is all it is — Tyler Moore might draw the short straw and have to head back to Syracuse for 15 days before rosters expand.
Lombardozzi, however, will likely go back to being the Nationals’ everything man.
“I’ll find him spots,” Johnson said. “He’s been great in the outfield, he’s great leading off. I can play him some at third, some at second, I’ll just expand the role.”
As for Espinosa, his play at shortstop has often been impeccable and that’s where he spent almost all of his baseball life. But he didn’t think it’d be an issue at all for him to slide right back over the position he’s made his own since getting called up to the major leagues.
“I don’t think it should be an issue,” Espinosa said. “I’ve only played over here for like a month or so. I played second base for like the past two years. I shouldn’t have a problem sliding over to second.”