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5/18/2014 2:10 P.M. ET

Nats out to reverse trend of giving up early runs

Williams at a loss to determine why club's pitchers struggle in first inning

WASHINGTON -- Before the Nationals came to bat on Saturday against the Mets, they already found themselves staring up at a 3-0 deficit. That's been an all-too-common theme this season for Washington.

In 42 games entering Sunday, the Nats have surrendered 42 first-inning runs, 13 more than any other Major League club. Their starting pitchers have a 7.50 ERA in the opening frame and have allowed opposing batters to hit .352 with a .396 on-base percentage and .566 slugging percentage. That .962 OPS is the highest in the Majors by 138 points.

When left-hander Gio Gonzalez was tagged for three quick runs on Saturday, it marked the 16th time this season a Nats starter gave up at least one in the first inning. That includes 10 innings of three runs or more.

Manager Matt Williams said the team has studied how its starters are preparing for games, but hasn't found anything that suggests a problem. Last year, Washington ranked 14th in the Majors in first-inning ERA.

"We've gone back three years, and it's been logged how many pitches they throw in the bullpen prior to games -- it has not changed," Williams said. "So to put a finger on it, I can't. Within two or three pitches, they've all been the same. Even Gio in his 21-[win] year [in 2012], did the same thing. There's nothing to put your finger on to say, 'Oh, this is why.' It's just the way it's been. A lot of them, we've come back; this time we couldn't."

The Nats are tied for fourth in the Majors with 12 comeback wins. While they have been outscored by 21 runs in the first inning, they rank first with a plus-38 run differential after the sixth.

Scuffling Espinosa out of starting lineup

WASHINGTON -- Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa was not in the club's starting lineup on Sunday against the Mets, only his second time on the bench in 32 games since Ryan Zimmerman suffered a fractured thumb on April 12.

Espinosa, originally slated to be a reserve this season, took on a larger role due to Zimmerman's injury and his own hot start. But over the past few weeks, Espinosa has scuffled at the plate.

After hitting .288/.341/.488 in April, he has posted a .118/.118/.294 slash line in 14 games this month. During that time, the 27-year-old has slammed three home runs -- including a game-tying shot in the ninth inning Monday at Arizona -- but is only 6-for-51 overall with no walks and 23 strikeouts.

"I think it's pitch selection. That's all," manager Matt Williams said before Saturday's game. "I think that he is chasing balls out of the strike zone. But he's fantastic at second base, and I want to put him in there as much as I can.

"The ebbs and flows of seasons are such that sometimes that's going to happen. The good thing about Danny is he's not taking it to the field, and that's good. He's excited, he's enthusiastic, he comes ready to play every day, wants to play every day, and there's no reason that first two, three weeks of the season can't come around, starting today."

Espinosa stroked a solid single in his first at-bat on Saturday, but went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts the rest of the way. His contact rate of 66.2 percent is a career low, while his swinging strike rate of 18 percent is a career high, according to FanGraphs.com.

"I just think he's ventured outside the strike zone a little bit," Williams said. "Some balls down, some balls elevated and certainly some balls off the zone. He works every day on just zoning it back in, getting a good one to hit and hitting it. Not trying to do too much. It's electric when he gets the head of the bat on it. But the most important thing for me is it hasn't translated to the defensive side of the baseball."

Worth noting

• With Espinosa sitting, Kevin Frandsen got his first start of the season at second base. The veteran utility man has played more games at second than any other position in his career, but has mostly served as an outfielder for the Nats.

• Right-hander Lucas Giolito, the Nats' top prospect, had his turn in the rotation skipped on Saturday for Class A Hagerstown. The organization is holding the 19-year-old to an innings limit in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.