NEW YORK — Danny Espinosa never took a day in the major leagues for granted, he said, so Monday morning failed to infuse him with any kind of special appreciation. His first day back since last summer’s demotion filled him instead with replenished excitement. He missed the preparation, the team bus rolling to a visiting stadium, playing in front 40,000 people. He missed the stakes.
Espinosa watched from the dugout for three hours as the Washington Nationals and New York Mets scrapped. Then he provided the fulcrum of the afternoon. He came to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning. The Nationals trailed by one run. Those 40,000 people frothed for him to make the final out. He reminded himself to stay calm.
Espinosa’s role will evolve over the season. The Nationals know for certain only that he will contribute. In Monday’s 9-7 opening day victory, they asked him to keep the game alive, and he gave them what teammates considered the most important plate appearance of the afternoon. Espinosa’s hard-earned, eight-pitch walk underscored both his new approach and the reason the Nationals have kept their faith in him.
“I was just trying to get on base right there,” Espinosa said. “It’s nice to be the hero. But I was just trying to extend the inning.”
One year ago, Espinosa began the season entrenched as the starting second baseman. But the Nationals banished him to Class AAA after two dismal, strikeout-packed months. They view him now not as trade bait, reclamation project or broken player. They view him as a utility infielder who will play “regularly,” Manager Matt Williams said. They view him, simply, as a crucial member of their team.
“I’ve been telling you guys all winter I think he’s a valuable piece to this club,” Williams said. “He brings a lot to the table, not just defensively but offensively for us. He’s able to play all around the diamond, plays Gold Glove-caliber defense wherever he plays. That’s a big part of our team. I think he came in focused. I think he came in with the idea he wanted to make the club and he worked very hard. That’s good for him. I like to see that.”
The Nationals since last fall have received ample opportunity to cast Espinosa away. Despite his .158 batting average/.193 slugging percentage/.272 on-base percentage, rival teams wanted to acquire him purely for his defensive value. General Manager Mike Rizzo refused to sell low.
He still saw not just the fielder who could win a Gold Glove, but also the player who hit 21 homers his rookie year and stole 20 bases the next season.
“There was quite a lot of interest in him, especially early in spring and mostly through the winter,” Rizzo said. “We made it clear that he wasn’t someone we were trying to trade. If there’s a good trade to be had, value-for-value, we’re open-minded about any of our players. We weren’t looking to trade him. We didn’t make any phone calls to trade him. We received a lot of calls. That shows the type of ability he has and the importance of his skill set.”
This year, he needed to mobilize that skill set. The calm, controlled approach Espinosa used to draw his pivotal walk surfaced all spring. By mid-March, Nationals evaluators pointed to five examples of at-bats Espinosa extended with foul balls or other contact that last year would have ended in strikeouts.
In January, Espinosa ranted to reporters about the opportunity to “win back my job” and blamed the organization for misdiagnosing a hand injury that derailed him in 2013. By the start of spring training, he had narrowed his focus. Teammates noticed his quiet dedication. Espinosa said he didn’t think about his status. He did not dwell on his competition with Anthony Rendon.
He just played.
“Whatever is fueling his fire right now, I love it,” shortstop Ian Desmond said Monday. “I love where he’s at. In the clubhouse, he’s great. On the bench, he was great today. It’s not going to be an easy road for him, but it looks like he’s up for the challenge.”
In the ninth inning Monday, Desmond stood on first with two outs as Espinosa strode to the plate. With a low-90s fastball, Bobby Parnell had induced a pop-up from Adam LaRoche and struck out Rendon looking. The crowd rose in anticipation the game would end.
Espinosa set an immediate tone for the at-bat when he fouled away a 92-mph fastball. Parnell tried a change-up, low and inside, the kind of pitch Espinosa so often flailed at last season. Here, he spit on it. Espinosa chased a fastball just outside the zone and fouled it away. One more strike, and the game would end.
“I tried to keep the at-bat at my pace,” Espinosa said. “Two strikes, just making him come to me rather than hitting his pitch. Making him continue to come to me.”
Espinosa looked at one fastball — 2-2 — and fouled away another. Parnell twirled a curveball in the dirt, and Espinosa held back. Espinosa rifled a 3-2 fastball down the first base line, just foul. On the second 3-2 pitch, Parnell fired a fastball over the plate, an eyelash below the knees. Espinosa took it. Ball four.
Denard Span’s double drove in Desmond with a game-tying run, but the Nationals agreed Espinosa’s at-bat won the game. In the clubhouse afterward, someone said to Espinosa, “Dude, I was swinging in my head. I don’t know how you took those.”
And so, the most important at-bat of the Nationals’ opening day victory came when Espinosa drew a walk while batting left-handed against a right-handed pitcher. Would he have had the patience and the plate discipline last season? “I don’t know,” he said. But we do know this: In 130 big league, left-handed plate appearances in 2013, Espinosa walked three times.
“He’s been locked in, man,” Span said. “He’s been locked in since day one. He came to spring training and you could just see he’s grown a lot.”
The process will continue all season. He will adjust to a new role, coming off the bench and spelling regulars. “I’ll have to adapt as I go,” Espinosa said. “I’ve never had to do deal with it. It’s going to be a process that I’ll kind of learn as I go along.”
The coming season will not always seem as exciting and as fun for Espinosa as opening day. But he has made changes necessary for the Nationals to welcome him back. He has allowed himself to redeem 2013. Who could not appreciate that?