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Danny Espinosa’s lack of production at the plate is striking

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PITTSBURGH — Danny Espinosa is swinging and missing. He knows it, his teammates know it and his manager knows it. He's well aware, also, that the fans know it. And he's not immune to the criticism. Espinosa's 37 strikeouts are tied for the most in the National League.

Tuesday night, after perhaps his worst game of the season, an 0-for-4 showing with three swinging strikeouts in the Washington Nationals' 5-4 loss, Espinosa retreated to the team hotel and stewed. He spent time with a few friends and pondered a slump that has followed him from the end of last season. One that has people wondering where the kid with the 25-30 home run potential has gone.

"I'm concerned about him," manager Davey Johnson said after Tuesday's game. "But I have a lot of confidence in him. He'll be in there tomorrow."

Espinosa was indeed in the lineup Wednesday, playing second base and batting second. As the Nationals wait for him to improve on a .186 batting average with a .282 on-base percentage and .235 slugging percentage, it has been Johnson's confidence in Espinosa that has been the second baseman's port in the storm.

"He's been through it," Espinosa said Wednesday inside the visitors' clubhouse at PNC Park. "He told me, early in his career whenever people were messing with his swing he was lost. He was like, 'I spent four years doing bullcrap like that. I wasted four years of my career.' He said 'Finally I just said 'I'm going to do what I do.' " That's kind of where I got to [Tuesday] night.

"I'm at the point where I'm just like, 'Screw it. I'm too good. It'll take over at some point.' I get frustrated with it, but I'm not worried about it because ... it's not new territory for me. The strikeouts are high right now, but if I get hot and keep hot for the year, the strikeouts will go way down and they won't be a problem."

It's common when players are struggling to hear an explanation that involves the words "I'm not seeing the ball well right now." Espinosa is no exception. He's the first to admit that he is, indeed, not seeing the ball well at the plate. It is not a physical issue. Espinosa's vision, corrected with contact lenses since the eighth grade, is fine. It's more of a lack of focus on seeing the ball, his mind racing to get everything else perfect.

"It's not that you're physically not seeing the ball because your eyes are bad, it's because you're thinking about: 'Are my hands on time? Is my foot down? Am I loaded?' " Espinosa said. "It sounds so simple [to just focus on seeing the ball]. People think, 'Oh why don't you do that all the time?' Well if it was so easy to do, everyone who sits in the stands would be playing the game."

Johnson has not danced around the fact that the Nationals need Espinosa to break out. It all seems to center on his approach at the plate — his ability to resist expanding the strike zone and reaching for pitches.

This season, according to Fangraphs.com, Espinosa has swung at 34.6 percent of pitches outside the strike zone and 72.5 percent of pitches in it. Those numbers are up from 32.19 percent and 67.8 percent from 2011. But most alarming about his strikeout numbers is his swings and misses. In 2011, a year in which Espinosa struck out 166 times and ranked third in the NL behind Cincinnati's Drew Stubbs and Philadelphia's Ryan Howard, he swung and missed at 11.5 percent of pitches. This season, that number has jumped to 14.9 percent.

Espinosa expressed confidence Wednesday that he could work out of this. Johnson reiterated that his confidence in Espinosa has never wavered.

"It's just a matter of time," Johnson said.

"He knows that I think he's an unbelievable talent. If anybody is going to break any record that I set, he would probably be one of them. I've explained to him, 'I have higher expectations of you than you probably do.' And he said, 'No. That's not true.' I know he has the confidence, and I know he has the ability. It's just a matter of time."

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