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Search for productivity from top of Nats’ lineup is ongoing process

Washington has used eight players in the leadoff spot

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2011

The only thing missing from Davey Johnson's search for a leadoff hitter is a help-wanted sign taped to his office door.

With a month and a half left in the season, Johnson's Washington Nationals are no closer to finding an answer at the top of the lineup than former manager Jim Riggleman was in April.

"We don't really have the prototype leadoff guy," Johnson said.

Eight players have hit in the spot this season for the Nationals. None of the regular options has an on-base percentage above .313. And that came from Rick Ankiel, hardly a traditional leadoff man with speed, the knack to reach base and the ability to bunt.

Johnson is back to shortstop Ian Desmond in the top spot. The manager thinks Desmond can run and bunt better than his other choices. But Desmond has struggled with the bat all season. Those struggles intensified leading off, where Desmond hits .167 (9-for-54) with a .196 on-base percentage. Johnson would rather bat him in the No. 2 hole.

So what is Johnson to do?

Virtually every reasonable option on the 25-man roster has been exhausted short of putting, say, Michael Morse or Wilson Ramos in the spot. Even right fielder Jayson Werth took 49 at-bats from the top spot, good for a .163 average, .281 on-base percentage and a ticket several spots down in the lineup.

Second baseman Danny Espinosa (14-for-81 leadoff) is more comfortable hitting lower in the lineup.

Utilitymen Brian Bixler and Alex Cora can run. But Johnson doesn't see them as "on-base guys."

Ideally, Johnson wants someone with the traditional elements of a leadoff man who doesn't hit exclusively left-handed. A left-handed leadoff man, Johnson feels, limits his options late in games and allows the opposing manager to bring in a left-handed specialist. And Johnson would like that player to come from a position up the middle — second base, shortstop or center field.

That's why the Nationals pursued Minnesota Twins center fielder Denard Span (owner of a .362 career on-base percentage) at the July 31 trade deadline. Those talks didn't pan out, so Johnson is left to sift through less-than-ideal options.

"I'm going to be searching," Johnson said. "Even when we make the [Sept. 1] call-ups, I'm going to be searching."

That means center fielder Roger Bernadina could get another chance. He has the most at-bats from the top spot this season (45-for-215) but struck out 48 times and, despite his ability to run and bunt, didn't make a lasting impression.

Another option is middle infield prospect Steve Lombardozzi. Over 52 games at Triple-A Syracuse, he's hit .322 with a .365 on-base percentage. He could hit first or second.

"Right now, the thing I'm concerned about is I'm trying to get guys who can [get on base]," said Johnson, owner of a .340 career on-base percentage. "The way you win is to get guys on base."

Whether the man who can do that is on the 25-man roster or even in the organization remains to be seen.

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