- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2012

NEW YORK — Danny Espinosa the major leaguer is a second baseman. Of the 261 big-league games Espinosa has started, only nine have been anywhere but second base.

But Danny Espinosa the ballplayer is a shortstop. And he probably always will be one.

With shortstop Ian Desmond on the shelf until at least Aug. 6, and possibly longer, with a left oblique strain, Espinosa the major leaguer is a shortstop again. And in the eight games he’s started there since the All-Star break, he’s made the transition as seamlessly as anyone could have expected.

“He’s been solid over there,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “We all know he’s got a [heck] of an arm. Because of his arm strength I didn’t think it’d be a problem. I think you could probably put him anywhere and he could do it because he’s got such a good arm and great hands.”

“The big adjustment is going from that little short throw at second base to shortstop,” said manager Davey Johnson, who made the same transition a few times during his major league career. “Danny has handled that transition from short to second, and going back he hasn’t skipped a beat. He’s looked like a very polished shortstop to me.”

When the Nationals drafted Espinosa in the third round of the 2008 draft, it was at the urging of scouting director Kris Kline, who loved Espinosa’s skills at the position — especially his arm.

“I will spend the rest of Danny Espinosa’s career thinking about Kris Kline,” former Nationals president and current Dodgers owner Stan Kasten recalled this past offseason. “Kris was so locked in on him. I remember Kris saying, ‘This is the only shortstop in the draft’ over and over.”

When Espinosa first moved back to short after the All-Star break, as Desmond’s oblique issue flared, he’d look to Desmond in the dugout for positioning with certain hitters. The ball spins off the bat such different ways from one side of the infield to the other that Espinosa didn’t want his second base instincts overriding his shortstop ones. Where a ball coming toward him at second might slice toward the right-field line, at short he’s noticed balls don’t hook toward the third-base line as often.

The more he has played there, the more comfortable he’s become.

“It comes back,” Espinosa said. “[When you] just get back to your natural position you kind of understand it.”

It’s those abilities that allow the Nationals to feel sure enough with Espinosa as Desmond’s replacement for the time being that they feel no pressure to acquire a starting position player at next week’s trade deadline.

But with Desmond out, Espinosa at short and Steve Lombardozzi the starting second baseman in the meantime, the Nationals’ insurance at the middle infield positions is only veteran Mark DeRosa, who is more suited to second base. To that end, the Nationals are exploring the market for veteran middle infielders who could help, though sources indicated no move would be considered a splash.

For now, the Nationals feel fortunate they’re able to sustain the loss of their All-Star shortstop, at least defensively, so adequately.

“Desmond has terrific range,” Johnson said. “Probably the best range in the league. Espinosa’s right there with him, and they’ve both got great arms. I’d be hard-pressed to be able to tell you who has the better arm between Espinosa and Desmond. As far as I’m concerned, there’s not much change.”

NOTES: Catcher Jesus Flores was back in the lineup after missing the previous three games with a stiff back. Flores went through batting practice Monday and didn’t have any issues. Sandy Leon likely will start the series finale, a day game Wednesday at Citi Field.

• Jayson Werth and Chad Tracy continued their rehab assignments with Triple-A Syracuse on Tuesday night. Tracy was serving as the DH and batting second, Werth playing center field and batting third.

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