- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

ST. LOUIS | Danny Espinosa doesn’t like to talk about his solid start to the season at the plate.

The Nationals’ second baseman smiles when asked about his .256 average, .364 on-base percentage and .512 slugging percentage and politely jokes that talking about it will only serve to ruin what he’s put together in the first 15 games of his rookie campaign.

As far as superstitions go, Espinosa — who refuses to acknowledge publicly what pitch he hits for a home run, so as not to let the information get out to opponents - is not about to jinx the consistency he’s found.

So the numbers will have to speak for themselves and — small sample sizes in mind - they speak quite loudly of the year Espinosa could be putting together.

“I’m looking at it as a sampling of 15 games we played this year,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “He’s playing good. His glove is what we really want to make sure is solid and he and Ian [Desmond] can play up the middle together, but the bat coming this quickly is really a plus.

“We feel like he’s going to be a good hitter. … To this point, he’s been a very good hitter and played good defense. He’s on the way to becoming a very good player.”

Not only does Espinosa, who was in the leadoff spot in the lineup for the fourth straight game Tuesday night against the St. Louis Cardinals, have the third highest on-base percentage on the team, but he’s hitting .364 with runners in scoring position and he leads all major league rookies with 14 RBI.

That on-base percentage is third behind only catcher Wilson Ramos (.500), who’s had just 34 plate appearances as he shares time with Ivan Rodriguez, and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who’s been on the disabled list since April 10 with an abdominal strain and did not travel with the team to St. Louis.

Riggleman has stressed many times that the Nationals do not have a “prototypical” leadoff hitter, but Espinosa’s filling the role admirably. He sees an average of 3.93 pitches per plate appearance and makes contact with nearly 80 percent of pitches. His patience is above the team’s average of 3.91 pitches per plate appearance - a mark that ranks tied for second in the National League with Colorado and trails only Pittsburgh (3.95).

Most encouraging lately for the switch-hitting Espinosa has been the emergence of his power and ability from the left side of the plate. On Sunday, Espinosa hit a three-run home run and a three-run triple in the first and second games of a doubleheader, respectively, and both power swings came from the left side.

“I have confidence in my left-handed swing,” Espinosa said Sunday. “It’s not as strong as my right-handed swing, just because of my top hand, but it’s getting there. Sometimes, during the season it just takes a little time for my left-handed swing to find itself. I’m feeling good.”

While he’s still significantly better against left-handed pitching than right (.333 average batting right-handed vs. a .226 average left-handed this season), he’s beginning to close the gap - especially when it comes to his power.

“We know he’s a good hitter, period,” Riggleman said. “But from the right side he’s been particularly stronger it seems like. The more progress he makes from the left side, he’s going to be that much better. You don’t want to get clubs to the point where they feel like they can always bring a right-hander in [and turn him around].”

Espinosa’s power was on full display against Milwaukee on Sunday, a sign of the inevitable breakout of the Nationals’ offense.

“He’s really just trying to maintain who he is as a hitter,” said Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein. “He conducts his at-bats in the way that the game is calling for him to conduct them. If a sac fly is in order, then he’s done a nice job doing all the little facets.

“It’s a small sample, but it also is indicative of the hard work he’s put in and I’m very anxious to see how we respond after a good series against the Brewers and we continue to make our way offensively. It’s been a struggle to put things together and so I felt like, this past series, offensively, was more what we’re about and what we’re able to do, for whatever reason until that series we hadn’t done it.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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