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Spotlight shifts to Espinosa

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Spotlight shifts to Espinosa

When Ian Desmond's lingering oblique strain first forced him out of the Nationals lineup eight days ago, teammate Danny Espinosa expressed optimism the club's All-Star shortstop's ability to produce at such a high level while injured would allow him to return in short order.

"I'm hoping that's what it is, because he's been too crucial defensively and offensively to our team," Espinosa said that morning in Miami. "To lose him for an extended amount of time, we can't have that."

Except they now have exactly that. With Desmond on the disabled list for at least a month, possibly more after an MRI revealed a slight tear of the oblique muscle, the Nationals find themselves needing to find a way to overcome the extended loss of perhaps their most indispensable player at the moment.

And Espinosa will be right in the thick of it trying to fill that hole as the Nationals' everyday shortstop for the foreseeable future.

Defensively, the club isn't too worried about Espinosa's ability to shift from the right side to the left side of the infield. He played shortstop at Long Beach State and through most of his minor-league career, only moving to second base a month before his Sept. 2010 big-league debut because Desmond was already at shortstop in Washington.

Espinosa has the arm to make throws from the left-side hole, as he exhibited over the last week. And he's beginning to feel more comfortable maneuvering around at his once-and-now-current position.

"Just reading the ball off the bat is totally different, the way the ball spins and everything," he said. "The first few games I was there, I had Ian in the dugout helping me as far as what he thought position-wise, so I could just kind of get a feel for it. It comes back."

With little reason to worry about Espinosa's defensive play, the Nationals are more concerned with keeping him red-hot at the plate.

After a prolonged slump that had manager Davey Johnson preparing to begin platooning him at second base with rookie Steve Lombardozzi, Espinosa is enjoying his best sustained offensive stretch in more than a year. After a 3-for-4 showing yesterday, he's hitting .338 with an .893 OPS over his last 20 games. For the season, he's now hitting .250, the highest his batting average has stood since April 26, 2011.

"I'm feeling good," he said. "Just confident, comfortable up there. I feel good."

Much of Espinosa's recent surge has come from the left side of the plate, where he had put up abysmal numbers through the season's first half. Slowly but surely, he's managed to cut down on his uppercut swing from that side and start driving the ball to the opposite field.

"I saw it probably three weeks ago when he started having better at-bats," Johnson said. "He was just more consistent. He was getting to more balls. He was using the whole field. ... I don't know what he's been since then, but I haven't seen him have a bad at-bat hardly from the left side.

"When you put that with what he's swinging from the right side, he's picking up much-needed slack. Especially now, it's great that he's going like that because we're going to really miss Desi's bat."

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Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez became the first former Nationals player (2005-present) to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. He was inducted in his first year of eligibility, marking the 52nd first-ballot hall of famer in history. 

Rodriguez, who was the first free agent signed by current Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, played the final two seasons of his career with Washington in 2010-11. During his time in D.C. he hit .254 six homers and 68 RBI. Pudge's greatest contribution to the Nationals came from his leadership and work ethic. He guided Stephen Strasburg through his rookie season and also helped develop Wilson Ramos so he could pass the torch to him. 

During his 21-year career, Pudge made 14 all-star teams, won 13 gold gloves, won seven silver slugger awards, led his league in caught-steeling percentage nine times, and was named American League MVP in 1999 with the Texas Rangers. He became a World Series champion in 2003 with the Florida Marlins. Pudge's 13 gold gloves are the most ever by a catcher, and his 2,844 career hits are the most ever by a player who appeared in 50 percent or more of their career games as a catcher.  

In addition to Rodriguez, former Montreal Expos great Tim Raines was inducted to the Hall of Fame. Raines is the franchise leader (Expos/Nationals) in walks (793), runs (947), stolen bases (635) and triples (82). Raines was an all-star seven times and he won a silver slugger in 1986 with the Expos. He is the only player in MLB history with at least 100 triples, 150 homers and 600 RBI in a career, and the only player to steal at least 70 bases in six consecutive seasons. 

Related: Bryce Harper wants Nationals to spend money on players, not team store

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Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper isn't one to keep his opinions to himself. The Nationals slugger is outspoken about what he wants, whether that's to "Make Baseball Fun Again" or to make at least $400 million on his next contract

On Wednesday, he gave his take on how the Nats should be investing their money this summer. Here's Harper responding to a tweet from ESPN's Jim Bowden.

Harper's message: Players over everything else. Sorry, gift shop. 

It's plain to see where the 2015 NL MVP is going with this. Obviously, he wants as much talent around him as possible for a chance to win the World Series. 

Matt Wieters, a four-time All-Star catcher, and Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer, could be significant additions to Washington's roster. 

Harper is set to become a free agent in 2018, at which point an organization like the New York Yankees will be prepared to offer him both a massive salary and a massive investment in the players around him.

The slugger probably hopes his current team will try to surround him with winning pieces in an effort to keep him. But if a report about the Nationals' reaction to his contract demands proves accurate, they may have another agenda. 

There's Harper drama around the Nationals? Just a regular Wednesday here in Washington.

MORE NATIONALS: Nationals avoid arbitration with Harper, three others