- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. | The Nationals haven’t lost their faith that shortstop Ian Desmond can thrive as the team’s leadoff hitter.

But considering Desmond doesn’t exactly fit the traditional profile of a leadoff hitter - and he’s opened the season mired in an 0-for-13 slump - the Nationals are going to shuffle the decks and give second baseman Danny Espinosa a shot at the top of the lineup Wednesday.

“I don’t think right now we have what we would call a prototypical leadoff hitter,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “I don’t know how it’s going to play out. One of them has got to hit there and hopefully it’ll ignite us and we’ll start scoring some runs.”

Scoring runs hasn’t been all that common for the Nationals, who were held to just six through 27 innings this season entering Tuesday’s game against the Florida Marlins. And Espinosa is batting .444 as the seventh hitter in those first three games while Desmond remains hitless, reaching base once on a fielder’s choice and scoring a run.

“I’m not frustrated one bit,” Desmond said Tuesday. “It’s not that big of a deal. Two hits, three hits, four hits, whatever it may be, and I’ll be right back to where I need to be. It’s not a big deal.”

Both players got the day off Tuesday as the Nationals opened their first road trip of the season. That left the one man in the clubhouse who perhaps does fit the style of a traditional leadoff hitter, Jerry Hairston Jr., atop the lineup - and he offered a little perspective for what Desmond has been going through to begin the season.

“I don’t care where you are [in the lineup], I don’t care who you are, during the course of the season you’re going to go through some stretches when you’re not going to get hits,” said Hairston, who has hit leadoff in 337 of the 1,151 games he’s played - more than any other spot in the lineup.

“There’s a guy by the name of Albert Pujols who’s struggling in St. Louis, he’s pretty good,” Hairston added. “Everybody goes through it. I think it’s just more magnified when it’s the start of the season. Sometimes it happens in July, sometimes in August, sometimes in May. He’ll be fine.”

In fact, Desmond did go through something similar in June, when he was caught in a 0-for-19 skid. He still finished his first full major league season with a .269 average. His best numbers, however, came in the second and seventh spots in the order.

“I think sometimes the leadoff hitter in general has that pressure, but I’ve always said, talking to other guys in the past, leadoff hitter is the toughest position because you’ve got a lot of thinking to do,” Hairston said. “You try to minimize your thinking. Do I need to take the pitch, should I try and work the count? A lot of times a three-hole or four-hole hitter, they don’t think like that, they just drive in runs. It’s a difficult place to hit, but I like hitting there.”

When the Nationals traded Nyjer Morgan to Milwaukee just before the close of spring training, they cleared up some congestion in center field, but they also left a vacancy at the leadoff position with no one truly suited to step in and fill it. Instead, they plotted out the lineup with what Riggleman called a “blanket” on the one and seven slots with a plan to use Desmond and Espinosa in those positions interchangeably.

In Desmond, they had a high-energy player who runs the bases well and hits for a solid average. And in Espinosa, while perhaps more of a power threat than his double play partner, they had a player who’d been successful as a leadoff hitter in the minor leagues.

In limited major league time batting first, Espinosa is 11-for-73 (.151 average) but has worked eight walks, doubled, tripled and hit three home runs.

But the second baseman has also been hitting well to start the season, and the idea is that dropping Desmond to seventh and bumping Espinosa up could help alleviate any pressure Desmond is feeling as he searches for his first hit of 2011.

Nothing is set in stone, though. As the Nationals have proved several times already this young season, their lineup is fluid.

“Maybe [we can] try to get Ian away from the feeling that he’s got to get it started for us, walking up to the plate as the first guy,” Riggleman said. “I’ve kind of had a little luck with that through the years, with some players if they were struggling a little. … As our roster stands right now, Ian will still be hitting leadoff at times, but [I am] just trying to let him get under way, get on track.

“We can go back and forth on it. … Whichever one is getting on base a little bit more than the other, right now, is the way we’ll go about it.”

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