The Washington Times - July 30, 2013, 07:18AM

Back in February, if you had told almost anyone in the baseball world that on the eve of the trade deadline the Washington Nationals would be two games below .500 and nine games back in the division, they probably would’ve laughed at your joke. 

But here they are. In the midst of assessing just what has gone wrong to this point and trying to figure out what their team needs to improve. 

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The next 30-hours or so could provide a glimpse into their thinking. The Nationals do not expect to make any “splashy” moves and they’ve identified the bench as a potential area they could improve. While they’ve already traded for Scott Hairston to help in that area, that would likely point them looking to upgrade with a left-handed bat, perhaps someone who could fill the role Roger Bernadina has played to this point. 

So in the meantime, here are a few notes…

– One reason the Nationals opted to acquire Scott Hairston at the start of the month was because Tyler Moore, whom they’d counted on to be their right-handed pop off the bench, struggled in his limited playing time in the majors this season. He was successful in the role in 2012, but the Nationals decided it was time to try a more veteran hitter.

Whether it’s the fact that he’s facing Triple-A pitching, or the everyday playing time, since Moore went back to the minor leagues for the second time this season, he’s been hitting the cover off the ball.

In 16 games, Moore is hitting .426 with a .521 on-base percentage and a .701 slugging percentage. On Monday night, Moore hit two homers and drove in six runs. Now, for clarity’s sake, his batting average on balls in play is ridiculously high: .524. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s just getting that lucky, he has 26 hits in this stretch and 35 percent of them are for extra bases. 

With Hairston in the fold, it doesn’t appear there’s immediate room for the Nationals to call Moore right back up to the big leagues now that he’s finally gotten into a stretch where he’s producing consistently, but from their standpoint it’s certainly good to see.

– On the other side of that is Danny Espinosa, who, from looking at the numbers alone, appears to still trying to find that consistency. Espinosa has improved since going to the minor leagues — hitting .261 with a .330 on-base percentage — but he’s still hitting just .188 overall (a mark brought down by a particularly horrid start after his demotion).

It will be interesting to see how the Nationals proceed with Espinosa. If he even hits a little, Espinosa is a worthwhile piece of the roster because of his tremendous defense and, in particular, his ability to play shortstop. Espinosa has also been playing shortstop an awful lot in Triple-A, playing it in 18 of 44 games, and he’s the Nationals’ clear backup to Ian Desmond at the position.

The Nationals do get calls on Espinosa from other teams, but they don’t want to trade him (and doing so now would be selling extremely low, of course). They want him to be the player they envisioned, and thought they saw in the first half of his rookie season, for them. As I said, it will be interesting to see how they proceed with him.

– Denard Span’s two homers in two days provided some entertaining moments for the Nationals over the weekend, but perhaps more interesting was to hear him talk after Sunday’s game. For perhaps the first time this season, Span said he was feeling “comfortable” at the plate.

“I am feeling comfortable,” Span said. “But I’ve been working on the cage a little bit with (hitting coach Rick Schu) and (first base coach) Tony Tarasco. Just feeling good right now.”

Now, after a guy hits two homers in two days it’s not entirely unsurprising to hear him say he feels good at the plate. But Span also went 4-for-4, and he’d admitted in recent weeks that he hadn’t been able to find that comfort at the plate much this season. 

Perhaps some of that comes from hitting in the No. 7 spot in the Nationals’ order. Span said on Saturday that he is admittedly more aggressive when he’s not hitting in the leadoff spot, less likely to try and work a count and take pitches and more likely to swing at the first pitch he likes.

His results have borne that out, for the most part, but he also had three hits with two strikes on Sunday, which is indicative of that comfort — he didn’t feel as though the at-bat was over, even though he had two strikes on him.

And his other hits — three singles to center — are also indicative of his timing improving. A majority of Span’s outs have come on ground balls to the right side of the infield, a result manager Davey Johnson believes is because he’s letting the ball travel too far before making contact. “Timing,” as he succinctly put it. 

“I think in the leadoff spot, you kind of want to make the pitcher work a lot, helps all the hitters behind you,” said Johnson, who finally moved Span out of the leadoff spot in the Nationals’ final game before the All-Star break. “But I think your on-base percentage always goes up when you show a pitcher you’re going to hammer something when he tries to get something down the middle early and get ahead.

“He’s been more aggressive on balls that are pretty much down the middle. He’ll still take the borderline pitches, but I like his approach. And he’s actually making contact out front more than even with it and rolling over. So that’s great.”

– Pitching coach Steve McCatty, who was taken to a local hospital before Sunday’s game against the New York Mets with atrial fibrillation, was not cleared to return to work in time to make it on the team’s flight to Detroit on Monday afternoon as they’d initially hoped, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. 

The hope is that McCatty will be able to travel on his own to join the team before Tuesday evening’s game against the Tigers.