WASHINGTON -- Nationals manager Davey Johnson knows how to push the right buttons, and Monday was just one more example, as Johnson decided to sit Danny Espinosa for a day and start Steve Lombardozzi at second base.
The move paid off -- big time -- as the Nationals defeated the Astros, 6-3, at Nationals Park. The Nationals have won six out of their last seven games and improved their record to 8-3.
Johnson said Espinosa, hitting .194, needed a mental day off and was trying too hard at the plate. In came Lombardozzi, who helped Washington take the lead in the sixth inning against Astros starter Kyle Weiland.
With the score tied at 2 and Stephen Strasburg's night done after being lifted for a pinch-hitter earlier in the inning, Lombardozzi doubled near the left-field line to score Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina.
It was Lombardozzi's fourth hit of the game after three singles in his first three plate appearances. He finished 4-for-5 on the night, but will be back on the bench for Tuesday's game against Houston.
"He is a good player. He had a heck of a night," Johnson said about Lombardozzi. "As much as I like him, Espi is my second baseman, if that is where you are going."
According to Johnson, as a bench player, Lombardozzi has a different approach when it comes to hitting. The person affectionately known as Lombo is more aggressive at the plate, which is fine by the skipper. He compares Lombardozzi's approach at the plate to Rays outfielder Ben Zobrist.
"He is a good two-strike hitter, he makes the pitchers throw the ball over," Johnson said about Lombardozzi. "He is a little more aggressive in this role, which is good, because it's harder to take a lot of pitches. So I'm glad to see he is a little more aggressive at the plate. He reminds me of Zobrist. He is a good two-strike hitter. Lombardozzi gets a lot of walks. He has a good idea of the strike zone."
A humble Lombardozzi was grateful to get a rare start. After being an everyday player in the Minor Leagues, the Maryland native has had to adjust to being a bench player.
"It's definitely been a different role, but it's something I've been learning," Lombardozzi said. "I won't forget this night. It was pretty awesome, and to do it here at home was pretty special."
Ryan Zimmerman then added to Washington's lead when he singled up the middle scoring Ian Desmond and Lombardozzi. Before the game, Johnson thought about giving Zimmerman the day off, because he, too, was in a slump. But Zimmerman showed signs of emerging with two hits in the game.
"It was nice to get some hits. It was good to contribute and drive some runs in and do some stuff," Zimmerman said.
Said Weiland about his outing, "I was really frustrated. It seemed I got back on track with my mechanics and I was pounding the zone a lot more in this game. I put myself in that situation with the two walks. I got away from what I had been doing the whole game, and walked two guys and put them in a situation that they could have a big inning like that. Especially after we had just tied it up, that's the last thing you want to do for the guys behind you."
The four-run sixth made a winner of Strasburg, who was solid in his third start of the season. He lasted six innings, allowed two runs on six hits, struck out five hitters and walked one. Strasburg threw 93 pitches, 61 strikes.
The two runs Strasburg allowed both scored in the sixth inning. With the bases loaded, Chris Johnson singled to right field with two outs, scoring Jordan Schafer and Jed Lowrie.
"I thought he threw the ball well. In his previous start, I took him farther than I wanted him to," Johnson said. "It probably took a little bit out of him when he threw [over 100 pitches] the second time out. But he was going along pretty good. He had that rough inning [in the sixth], but he got out of it with the score tied."
There were times throughout the game that Strasburg thought he was tipping his pitches. He felt Astros hitters were too comfortable at the plate.
"Typically, the hitters knows something a little different on some pitches, and they know it's coming," Strasburg said. "They feel very comfortable in there. That's something I have to look at on film. If I'm doing it, I know how to fix it. It could be anything. I do certain things every once in a while. The opposing team will pick up on it. I know what it is. I know how to fix it, so that is the bottom line."
That may be so for Strasburg, but the bottom line on this night was that Johnson pushed the right buttons to win the game.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.