- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2012

Late at night at Nationals Park, as they digest another game in what is still a season in its infancy, Danny Espinosa and Randy Knorr sit in the steam room and talk. The conversation doesn’t always revolve around the game. Sometimes it’s life, sometimes it’s advice. But, in a way, it’s like therapy.

And as Espinosa stumbled out of the gate in his sophomore season, the second baseman took to the conversations with the bench coach for reassurance. Since he was called up in 2010, the second baseman has played in 209 of the Nationals’ 212 games and was anointed their starter last spring.

It didn’t stop him from looking at his numbers this year (.188 average, .286 on-base percentage, .247 slugging percentage and 30 strikeouts in 23 games), see that he’s gone from hitting second, to sixth, and worry about his standing on the team. Thursday, as rookie phenom Bryce Harper was slotted in at No. 3, Espinosa hit sixth for the fifth time this season.

“I was nervous,” Espinosa said Thursday. “I mean, I’m young. Every young player, when you’re not doing well, there’s always that thought of you could go down.

“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘I’m the guy that thinks I’m invincible, and they’re not going to ever send me down.’ Every young player thinks that. I’m not lying. Whether people want to hear that or not, that goes through every young player’s head.”

Last year, when Espinosa went through a self-described “rookie slump” that saw him lose 11 points from his average from July 15 to Aug. 31 and his home runs drop dramatically, he tried to recover with overanalysis. He spent hours in the video room, more in the batting cage and drove himself crazy with worry.

He hasn’t resorted to those tactics this year. Instead he’s sought opinions of those around him, and listened when they’re offered. The adjustments needed now, he knows, are mental. And as one player put it: The difference between a foul ball and a home run is just one thought, one sliver of doubt.

Tuesday night, after Espinosa was 0 for 4 with two more strikeouts, shortstop Ian Desmond offered some advice. The pressure to perform had the potential to eat Espinosa alive, and he’d negatively modified his approach at the plate because of it. All Desmond did was encourage Espinosa to get back to what works for him.

“He’s just got to not put so much pressure,” Knorr said, his thoughts similar to the ones Desmond imparted. “His expectations are so much higher than what we have for him, and he’s fighting against that because he wants it now, and he doesn’t understand it’s a process.

“It’s not him. It’s him in a sense, but it’s what they’re doing to him and he hasn’t made the adjustment. I don’t call it a slump. I call it a period of adjustment, and that’s what he’s going through.”

Manager Davey Johnson knows how integral Espinosa can be to his lineup, especially as the Nationals try to weather an injury storm. He said at least four times Thursday that Espinosa needs to start “doing what he’s capable of,” noting a struggle against fastballs that the 25-year-old must improve on in his approach at the plate.

“I just got away from myself,” Espinosa said. “I don’t mind getting out. It’s a game of failure, so it doesn’t kill me to get out. It’s when I go through a game and I had three or four at-bats with no approach, or lost my approach, that’s what ticks me off.

“To go into tonight and say, ‘Tonight I’m going to have my plan.’ At least I have a plan.”

Notes: First baseman Adam LaRoche was scratched during batting practice with right oblique soreness, an ominous-sounding injury for the team’s best hitter to date. Chad Tracy took his place at first base, and Jayson Werth moved up to the cleanup slot. LaRoche’s status was expected to be updated after Thursday’s game…. Harper became the youngest player to hit third in the major leagues since Andruw Jones did it in 1996.