NEW YORK — Throughout his entire rookie season, Danny Espinosa had no luck against R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball. Espinosa came to dread the at-bats — and what seeing the pitch would do to his timing for days after. He didn’t have a single hit off the Mets’ right-hander all year.
The Nationals have faced Dickey now three times this season. In the first game, Espinosa hit left-handed, as he always does against right-handed pitchers. But in the second meeting, he turned around and batted right-handed. He picked up his first hit off the knuckleballer.
On Tuesday night, Espinosa stayed on the opposite side of the batters box, batting right-handed in three at-bats against Dickey. He was 2-for-3 with a double and a single.
It’s not an uncommon change for switch hitters against knuckleball pitchers, Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. It’s easier for players to be on their more dominant side to try and get the bat out in front a bit more and attack the pitch. Espinosa just figured nothing was working left-handed, so why not try it?
To Johnson, it’s simple: “If you’re quicker to the ball, you can hit it out front.”
So far, so good for Espinosa, who has quietly worked out of his early-season slump to put together a ridiculously good July and look more like a complete hitter than he has at any point this season.
Espinosa is hitting .351 this month and .373 since the All-Star break. The loop in his left-handed swing that he struggled to rid himself of for so long, appears to be gone. And his approach, particularly on inside pitches, has improved.
“The loop is a result of bad timing,” Johnson said. “When you can’t get to a ball, your bat flattens out and you get a little loop in (your swing) and you kind of hit it on the upswing. That’s the only way to hit it when the ball beats you. When your timing gets better, the stroke gets better because the bat’s getting to the ball on a more direct line.
“I think both sides of the plate now look fairly consistent. I know they feel fairly consistent to him. That’s just part of, it’s his second year up here and making adjustments to how they pitch you.”
Johnson has been raving about him for at least a month and the results are finally starting to support his feelings.
Espinosa’s production has improved by the month, if gradually. In April he hit .205. In May, .232. In June, while the progress he’d begun to make was evident, he still only hit .236 — but his BAbip (batting average on balls in play) was .304. In July, Espinosa’s BAbip has skyrocketed to .423. He’s not only hitting better and making better contact, but an awful lot of the balls he was hitting right at someone earlier this season seem to be falling for him now.
“He’s a very gifted player and he’s smart,” Johnson said. “He’s also stubborn as heck, but that can be a good trait because I know what stubborn is. I’ve been stubborn my whole career. Once you get to the point where you’re starting to have success and you know what they’re trying to do to you you’re going to have success doing it and it becomes a lot of fun.
“He’s always serious as a heart attack. He kind of has that ‘Frank Robinson chip on his shoulder.’ Nothing wrong with that.”