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Nats’ Espinosa flipping the switch

- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2012

JUPITER, Fla. — Danny Espinosa has heard all the theories. He's heard all the rumors from people who don't know his story, who look at his rookie splits and see a switch-hitter whose numbers suffered from the left side.

They hypothesize and pontificate that Espinosa just began switch-hitting a few years ago. That someone along the way saw a right-handed kid with good speed and figured they'd train him as a lefty, too, so he could hit the ball on the ground and hustle down the line.

He has his own take on that: They're wrong.

"No one knows the true story," Espinosa said one morning earlier this spring, tired of being pestered about his 2011 splits that featured a .060 dip in his average from the right side (.283) to the left (.223).

That's the story of how his father, Danny Espinosa Sr., taught his son to switch-hit before he'd reached his fifth birthday. Told him to alternate every at-bat in Little League - left, right - and worked with him on it constantly.

It's the story of how, until his senior year of high school, "fast" would have been a misnomer for the Washington Nationals second baseman. And prior to his rookie season in the big leagues, one that began just three months after surgery on his right hand, it was his right-handed swing that needed the work, not the left.

"It's a joke to hear people say that just because of one year, that I hit better right-handed," Espinosa said. "It was just an off season left-handed. I have no answer for that, really."

While Espinosa has no regard for the aforementioned theories, there are a few that he sees as credible. Over the course of the 2011 season, he developed a loop in his swing. It screwed with his timing and drove him crazy overanalyzing it in the video room and the batting cage.

In trying to fix it, Espinosa worked harder. He studied endless loops of video and took 15 some-odd rounds of batting practice each day. Fifty swings in the cage. Forty more during BP. A few more before the game would start. He was exhausted before the first pitch had been thrown. And there were plenty of nights Espinosa would come in after the game, change his shoes, grab a bat, and head back to the cage at 11 p.m.

He's done with it. All of it.

"That's something I will not do again," he said. "It made my swing tired. I physically did not feel tired. But it made my swing tired. I'd have four good rounds of BP and have one off round and I'd be like, 'What happened? What happened?'

"Never will I do that again."

In college at Long Beach State and in the minor leagues, Espinosa didn't need video because he didn't have it. He didn't hit at midnight after a game because there was no place to do it. This spring he can count on one hand how often he's been in the video room. It's a liberating feeling.

"That's the old adage: Try easier, not harder, right?" said hitting coach Rick Eckstein. "Sometimes more doesn't always equate to the final [product]."

So when the season ended, Espinosa didn't pick up a bat until December. "I wanted to forget my swing," he said. And even then he did it more as a way to spend time with his dad than to work on things.

This spring, Nationals utility man Mark DeRosa spotted the loop in Espinosa's left-handed swing almost immediately. "He's such a quick study," DeRosa said. So he passed on a drill he'd been given years ago by Texas Rangers infielder Michael Young and Chicago Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, in which a batter places a tee at eye level and it forces him to bring his swing up.

What it's done for Espinosa is help him to find a comfortable path for his bat and be aware of where the barrel is when it's coming through the zone.

"We had talked a little bit about hitting," DeRosa said. "And what he was explaining to me, I thought, goes against what I've learned from a lot of the great hitters in the game. It was pretty easy to change a little bit of the way he was thinking."

His spring statistics (.381 average right-handed, .180 left-handed) don't show the progress Espinosa feels he's made. He's had trouble picking up the ball as a lefty at Space Coast Stadium, a common complaint among other left-handed hitters because of the placement of the batter's eye, and the strikeout totals aren't pretty (19 from the left side compared to five from the right).

He homered from the right side of the plate Sunday afternoon, his first of the spring. But it was a ninth-inning, two-strike single through the third base side off St. Louis' right-handed closer Jason Motte that Nationals manager Davey Johnson wanted to talk about.

Three batters later, Espinosa was sliding home with the winning run on a close play at the plate.

"He got a good two-strike base hit to score the winning run," Johnson said. "I think he enjoyed that more than anything."

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