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Nats Middle Infield Oozing With Potential

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Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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VIERA, Fla. (AP) Washington shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa seem to be always communicating – on and off the field.

Their lockers are next to each other and in the Nationals’ clubhouse they’re always talking about something.

“We keep pretty much an open relationship,” Desmond said. “We’ve got good communication. We’re talking about everything — hitting, fielding . music. We’re pretty open with each other.”

More often than not, though, their conversations are about defense. They bounce ideas off each other about where to position themselves in certain scenarios and reminding each other where they like the ball when trying to make the turn at second base.

It’s what good double-play combinations do, and with Desmond and Espinosa, the Nationals have a potentially dynamite tandem that can only get better after playing together last season for the first time.

Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said they are incredible.

“I’ve played with some really good ones, too,” he said. “These guys, they make it look easy. It’s quick. They’ve both got maybe two of the best arms in baseball.

“Now, it’s just doing it over and over and over and getting smoother and smoother. I’ll try to do my part over there, help them out when I can.”

Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who won three Gold Gloves at second base during his playing career, believes athleticism and arm strength are two of the biggest attributes a good double play combination can have. With an infield that also consists of Gold Glove winning third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche, a Gold Glove candidate himself, the Nationals could have quite a defensive presence this season.

“The guys we’re running out here are all exceptionally gifted,” Johnson said. “The guy who had the toughest job (last year) was Espy, going over (to second). I was surprised he didn’t win the Gold Glove.”

While both players showed what they’re capable of defensively last season – Desmond even cut his errors down from 34 in 2010 to 23 in 2011 – neither had a particularly good season at the plate. Espinosa batted .236 with an on-base percentage of .323, while Desmond was .262/.304.

Given that the two are likely to hit in the top two spots in the Nationals lineup this season, it is vital they get those numbers up so the team’s top hitters like Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth can have a chance to drive them in.

“Desmond is doing great” this spring, Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “He’s in a much more balanced position. He’s using the entire field right now and he’s got a lot of looseness in his swing. Desi’s very happy where he is with his swing, and I am, too.”

Espinosa, meanwhile, seems much happier, too.

Ever the perfectionist, the switch hitter admittedly nitpicked his swing from the left side and repeatedly changed his stance during his rookie season, none of which seemed to help.

Johnson told him to simply go home and get comfortable, and now he believes he has found a solution. He is no longer dropping his hands right away and is taking much cleaner path toward the ball.

“I’m swinging easier, but getting the same pop off my bat,” he said.

Desmond and Espinosa did not work out together during the offseason (they live on opposite coasts), but it hasn’t taken them long to get themselves in synch with each other this spring.

“We’re both on the same energy level, the same wave length on and off the field,” Desmond said. “Obviously, I’m married, he’s single. But that’s about the only difference. We’re both really competitive and we both want to win. We’re both very driven.”

Perhaps that’s why they seem to get along so well. There is a trust there that will only continue to grow over time. If they’re able to stay together for a long time, the Nationals could have one of the best double-play combinations in the game.

“In terms of range, I think we’re right at the top,” Espinosa said. “We get to a lot of balls other people don’t get to. We make a lot of plays that (other) people don’t make. We have a fun time playing together. We work hard together. I guess it’s fun being able to do things other double play combinations might not be able to do.”

Notes: The Nationals will host Georgetown Friday in an exhibition game. Left-hander Matt Purke will get the start and have a 40-pitch limit. Last year’s top pick, Anthony Rendon is expected to start at third base and 19-year-old Bryce Harper is slated to start in right . Harper is also expected to travel with the Nationals on Saturday when they open Grapefruit League play in Kissimmee against Houston . First baseman Adam LaRoche rested his slightly sprained ankle and bothersome shoulder on Thursday, but said he would have been ready to go if it were the real thing. . LaRoche plans to play Sunday, but Johnson said he would consult the team trainers and speak with the first baseman before making a decision . Several Nationals were in favor of potentially adding another wild card team to the playoffs for the 2012 season. However, Johnson said he was thinking more about winning the N.L. East than trying to reach the playoffs as a wildcard.

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