SAN FRANCISCO — Danny Espinosa burst through the doors of the visitors’ clubhouse at AT&T Park on Monday afternoon with his bat in hand and his shirt drenched in sweat. The lineup card posted just across from his locker told the world what the second baseman already knew: He wasn’t playing.
Sunday afternoon, Espinosa was 0 for 4. It was his sixth hitless game in the past seven, a stretch that has featured only one hit in 28 at-bats with 13 strikeouts and no walks.
“Danny’s been trying to get it together,” manager Davey Johnson said Sunday. “He’s just struggling. Everybody knows that.”
So Espinosa arrived at the ballpark Monday and got to work in a long session with hitting coach Rick Eckstein.
“I hate to just single him out,” Johnson said Monday. “But he’s certainly not doing the things he knows he’s capable of doing. It’s frustrating for him and he feels like he’s letting everybody down. He’s trying his best.”
He’s not alone. The Nationals’ offense, collectively, has vastly underperformed. Before Monday night’s game against the San Francisco Giants, Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman — two of the five players on the active roster hitting above .250 — tried to remind everyone to relax, speaking up in the normal pre-series hitters’ meeting.
“We’ve got guys, including myself, who are still learning,” Zimmerman said. “Everyone’s still learning. We just need to continue to work, and learn from our mistakes. As the year goes on, we’ll get better.
“We have some guys who are kind of underperforming. It’s still early, but obviously in the middle of May you hope to start getting the ship going the right way.”
Perhaps no one has taken more of the heat for that underperformance than Espinosa, who declined to comment on his recent woes. The second baseman, with 383 major league games under his belt, owns a .232/.304/.400 slash line that significantly belies the talent the team has always seen in him.
“When things don’t go good, it’s easy to point the finger,” Desmond said of the team’s offense. “I just wanted to express to guys, ‘Hey, do what you do best and that’s all we can ask.’ If everybody does the best job they can, at the end of the day we’re going to be a pretty good ballclub.”
Espinosa takes early batting practice routinely, likely far more than any other regular player in the Nationals’ lineup. He watches video. He’s had long conversations about hitting with Johnson. Including Monday, he already has sat out eight games this season — some of them because of a wrist injury. In his first two major league seasons combined, Espinosa missed only five.
But Monday, Eckstein, Espinosa and Johnson took a look at some video from Espinosa’s rookie season in 2011. At the All-Star break that year, Espinosa had a .793 on-base plus slugging percentage. Of his 79 hits, 35 of them were for extra bases and his on-base percentage was respectable at .332. He finished the season with 55 extra-base hits, despite a .236 batting average.
They watched footage of the days when things were going well for Espinosa, and some of the footage from when things have been going bad. They tried to put a few things into practice.
Johnson called Espinosa “very receptive,” but in truth it’d be hard for him not to be. Espinosa is acutely aware that the scoreboard is staring back at him with a .163 average. The left shoulder, housing Espinosa’s torn but rehabbed rotator cuff, is not an issue, Johnson said.
“[Struggling] can wear on you,” Johnson said. “You expect to do things to keep improving and play at a higher level and he’s taken a step or so back. But he’s still a tremendous player, he’s still got tremendous talent. I haven’t given up on him, by any means.”
On the plus side, his defense has remained stellar despite his struggles at the plate. Right now, the team has no plans to send Espinosa to the minor leagues, though he has an option and could be sent down without risk of losing him to another team. Johnson indicated Espinosa may return to the lineup Tuesday when the Nationals face Matt Cain.
Maybe it’ll do the trick. After all, in his career, Espinosa has hit .379 at the notoriously pitcher-friendly AT&T Park with a .400 on-base percentage and a .655 slugging percentage. Against Cain, Espinosa is 2 for 7 with a home run.
Maybe, if things click, it’ll be as simple as one good game.
“If I don’t give him the opportunity to come back and do something, it ain’t going to get better,” Johnson said. “I’m surprised that he’s having this kind of problem. But you have to have patience with young players. I know that our fans and ownership and everybody else, they expect us to play good and do well.
“But how you handle adversity is a large part of success. We’ll get through this. Coming in this year, I felt like Danny was a key guy that, if he’d start doing the things I knew he was capable of doing, it could make the year a whole lot of fun. And I still feel that way.”