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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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Nats open new $150 million spring training site with walk-off win

Nats open new $150 million spring training site with walk-off win

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Bryce Harper drove in the first run, the rain stayed away and a festive crowd saw a game-ending homer. All in all, a nice start on opening day for The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

Shared by the Houston Astros and Washington, the teams met Tuesday in the first spring training game at the new $150 million complex. The Nationals won 4-3 on Michael Taylor's drive with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

The biggest draw for many of the 5,987 fans seemed to be the racing president mascots, who made the trip south from Nationals Park. Instead of Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, the opener featured William Taft, Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge.

"I miss Teddy, George and Jeff," said David Blackwood, who made the trip across Florida from Sarasota for the game. "These are like the spring training presidents. They haven't made the squad yet."

There are still more permanent fixtures that need work at the park that holds over 7,000 -- some concession stands won't open for a few more games, not all bathrooms had hot water. But what was accomplished in 15 months since the ballpark's approval is being lauded by players, coaches, fans and Commissioner Rob Manfred, who was in attendance.

"The stadium bowl itself is absolutely first rate, but I think the back fields and practice areas are amazing, as well," Manfred said.

The Astros and Nationals each have one back field that mimics the dimensions of their home ballpark, plus five other full-sized practice fields apiece.

Along with clubhouses that rival most of those at major league ballparks in both size and number of televisions, the Nationals' side of the facility also features a training pool, which began to be filled on Monday.

"A diving board would have been nice -- maybe a slide," joked Jeremy Guthrie, who threw the first pitch of the game after morning rain cleared out.

For the record, Daniel Murphy got the first hit and Carlos Beltran launched the first homer. Harper doubled home the first run.

Players raved about field conditions, which offered dimensions of 335, 406 and 336 feet from left to right. The bullpens are down the lines behind the outfield wall, with a green berm where fans can stretch out and watch the game.

Beyond the left field berm resides the Houston executive offices, which Derek Norris hit on one bounce for a home run. From the upper level seats fans can glimpse several of the back fields.

Taylor's homer over the left field foul pole marked the first spring training game in West Palm Beach since 1997. The Nationals' franchise once called West Palm Beach home, back when they were the Montreal Expos. The Braves and Expos shared a complex in town for years.

The Nationals explored options on both coasts of Florida as a replacement for their previous spring training complex in Viera, two hours north of their new residence. The Astros moved from Kissimmee, more than two hours away.

About 15 minutes from the new ballpark in Jupiter is Roger Dean Stadium, shared by the Cardinals and Marlins.

"I love the idea of spring training baseball in southeastern Florida," said Manfred, who has an apartment close to West Palm Beach. "I actually think it's not just personal, it's good for the game to have two centers of baseball in the state of Florida. It allows teams to keep their travel time down, but you do need a certain number of teams to make it all work."

While in Viera, bus rides of two and three hours were the norm for the Nationals. This spring 27 of their 34 games will be played in Palm Beach County. Three more will be played two counties north at the Mets' facility in Port St. Lucie, less than an hour away.

"Riding on the bus for four hours is not that fun so having fewer trips like that is definitely better," said Taylor, who set up his winning homer by throwing out a runner at the plate to end the top of the ninth.

There is one potential pothole that Nationals manager Dusty Baker didn't face when the club camped in Viera. In West Palm Beach and the surrounding area, there are plenty of attractions to occupy a player's time away from the ballpark -- and some of those places remain open until 5 a.m.

"We were in Viera, there wasn't anybody staying open," Baker said. "It was nice, but, you know, it was easy to get your rest."

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AP source: Joe Blanton, Nats agree to $4M, 1-year contract

AP source: Joe Blanton, Nats agree to $4M, 1-year contract

WASHINGTON – Setup man Joe Blanton and the Washington Nationals have agreed to a $4 million, one-year contract, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.

The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity on Tuesday because the agreement had not been announced.

The 36-year-old Blanton was a free agent after pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016, when the right-hander went 7-2 with a 2.48 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 80 innings across 75 regular-season appearances. He then went 1-0 and allowed only one hit in five scoreless innings in four games for LA during an NL Division Series victory over Washington.

Formerly a starter in the majors, Blanton has become a reliever and adds to the Nationals' crop of bullpen arms. The team does not have an experienced closer after Mark Melancon left as a free agent to sign with the San Francisco Giants.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, signed reliever Sergio Romo from the Giants to fill Blanton's previous setup role.

Blanton is 99-93 with a 4.35 ERA in 12 seasons with six clubs. He has appeared in a total of 376 games, 124 in relief.

He joins a Nationals bullpen that also includes Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen, Koda Glover, Oliver Perez, Sammy Solis and Trevor Gott.

Blanton's agreement, which also includes up to $1 million in performance bonuses, was first reported by The Washington Post.