The Washington Times - May 20, 2012, 12:25PM

So here the Nationals are. They woke up Sunday morning losers of seven of their last 12 games (and the last three straight). They need to beat the Orioles in order to avoid being swept in the first edition of the Battle of the Beltways and they’re heading into a strong headwind in the form of their schedule in the next six weeks.

This Nationals team, as we’ve seen, is not without flaws. Their 14-4 start predicated on pitching and getting the timely hit they needed has faded and what’s left is an offense opposing pitchers have found holes in and a pitching staff that can’t be expected to be perfect every night.

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“We’re just not quite having everything cranking like you want to have,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson late Saturday night, this after his team scored five runs to almost come all the way back from a six-run hole. “But I’ve seen signs of it for the last two or three weeks where more guys are starting to feel good up there. That’s the key.

“You want to win in this league? You can’t have any weak spots in the lineup. Everybody’s got to be protected. It’s the name of the game.”

It was that final thought Saturday night that Johnson left the interview room with. Then he wrote out a lineup Sunday morning that featured second baseman Danny Espinosa’s return to the lineup after a day off to “chill out.”

Espinosa has minimal experience as a leadoff hitter. He’s hit leadoff in 38 games, 170 plate appearances, with a .162 average, .235 on-base percentage and .312 slugging percentage. After Steve Lombardozzi was 2-for-5 with an RBI on Saturday night, bringing his season totals to .324/.400/.394, he was back on the bench. But that shouldn’t be a surprise. Even as Espinosa struggles to find what was working so well for him in the first half of his rookie season, he’s still the one the Nationals view as their starting second baseman for the long haul. Lombardozzi’s opportunity to make his case may increase the longer Espinosa struggles, but for now they’re not going to completely discount the man they’ve chosen.

“You make a decision on who’s the guy that’s going to start and who’s the guy that’s going to be on the bench and I’m not quick to change,” Johnson said Saturday. “It’s very difficult having a player that I think is a starting second baseman in the big leagues in Lombardozzi on the bench. By him still sitting there, that’s how much I think of Espinosa.”

Here are the full lineups as the Nationals and Orioles do battle in the finale this afternoon:

Nationals

Danny Espinosa 2B
Bryce Harper RF
Ryan Zimmerman 3B
Adam LaRoche 1B
Ian Desmond SS
Xavier Nady RF
Tyler Moore LF
Jesus Flores C
Stephen Strasburg P

Orioles

Xavier Avery LF 
J.J. Hardy SS
Nick Markakis RF
Adam Jones CF
Wilson Betemit 3B
Chris Davis 1B
Robert Andino 2B
Luis Exposito C
Wei-Yin Chen P