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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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Even after two-plus years, Hunter Strickland couldn't forget last meeting with Bryce Harper

Even after two-plus years, Hunter Strickland couldn't forget last meeting with Bryce Harper

965 days. That's the amount of time that separated the second time Bryce Harper and Hunter Strickland faced each other on an MLB diamond and the third one.

In that second matchup, which came back in Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS, Harper launched a game-tying home run in the seventh inning off of Strickland. Harper also hit a blast off Strickland in Game 1 of the same series.

Well, apparently, the Giants reliever still hasn't gotten over his last time he saw the Nationals star, because on Monday, the right-hander plunked the MVP candidate with a fastball the first chance he had since their postseason encounters almost three years ago.

Ironically enough, after San Francisco beat Washington in the NLDS, Strickland told the SF Chronicle how he would have to "have a short memory" on the mound for the rest of the playoffs and keep his composure after the home runs. Judging by this video, however, it's clear that Strickland's had some issues moving on:

RELATED: MORE ON THE HARPER VS. STRICKLAND BRAWL

When you look back at that Game 4 meeting, you'll see Harper pause at home plate and watch his moonshot after sending it into the McCovey Cove, then glare at Strickland a few times as he rounds the bases. Some will call what No. 34 did a violation of baseball's unwritten rules, but it was a huge moment on a huge stage, which contributed to Harper's emotional reaction.

The fact of the matter is that plenty of pitchers have moved on from much more egregious things in much shorter time frames, but for whatever reason, Strickland just wasn't able to.

Afterward, Harper explained why he thinks the hit by pitch should've never happened.

But Ryan Zimmerman had the best quote of all when talking about the sequence:

The veteran is right on with that statement. Harper was better than Strickland back in 2014, so Strickland felt the need to tag Harper first before Harper had a chance to tag him again on Monday. Essentially, the pitcher followed the, "If you can't beat him, bean him" strategy.

965 days is a long time to get over a grudge. For Hunter Strickland, though, 965 days still wasn't enough.

MORE: 10 INSANE BALLPARK FOODS YOU CAN EAT IN 2017

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Bryce Harper charges mound, throws punches after Hunter Strickland hits him with pitch

Bryce Harper charges mound, throws punches after Hunter Strickland hits him with pitch

In their two previous meetings, Bryce Harper took Hunter Strickland deep. Very deep, in fact.

So in their third encounter, Strickland made sure that Harper wouldn't have the chance to do it again. 

RELATED: HERE'S THE HISTORY BETWEEN BRYCE HARPER AND HUNTER STRICKLAND

In the top of the eighth inning of Monday's Nationals-Giants game, the San Francisco reliever went after Washington's best player on the first pitch and hit him in the thigh with a 98 MPH fastball.

Harper — without hesitation — responded by charging the mound and throwing his helmet at Strickland, and the two then squared off and exchanged punches.

Here is the wild video of the whole sequence:

Harper and Strickland were, of course, ejected after initiating one of the best MLB fights in recent memory. This was the pair's first time facing each other since Harper's two home runs in the 2014 NLDS, meaning Strickland's had a long time to get over No. 34's blasts but simply couldn't do it.

MORE: 10 INSANE BALLPARK FOODS YOU CAN FIND (AND TASTE) IN 2017