Danny Espinosa leads the Washington Nationals to a 4-3 win over the Houston Astros

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jason Marquis delivers during the third inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jason Marquis delivers during the third inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Evan Vucci - AP)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 12:11 AM

Danny Espinosa may well become the Washington Nationals' second baseman next spring, and this month he is learning on the job. The start to his big league career was a fantasy sprung to life. Next came the cold reality that the majors is not all grand slams and curtain calls. It is, as he knew it would be, a grind.

When Espinosa walked to the plate for his second at-bat Wednesday night, he had five hits in his previous 51 at-bats. By the time the Nationals had secured a 4-3 victory over the Houston Astros, he was giving an interview in front of the Nationals' dugout after smacking a triple and bashing a game-winning, two-run home run in the seventh inning.

Espinosa, in front of 12,213 at Nationals Park, lifted the Nationals to their second straight victory, allowed Tyler Clippard to scoop up his team-leading 11th victory despite blowing a lead in the seventh, and checked off one more item on his September to-do list: He had survived his first slump.

"It was tough being up here," Espinosa said. "You're in the minors, you know you're going to have a chance to play every day. Up here, it's not the same. They're going to put the best team out there every day, and I was struggling. I knew it was just a matter of getting my head back together and getting back through it."

While trying to salvage what they can of this season, the Nationals are also trying to lay a foundation for the next. Last year, they broke in Ian Desmond, who had started the year in Class AA, rose to Class AAA and, upon his ultimate promotion, never went back to the minors. Desmond understood the importance of his first month in the majors, the same opportunity Espinosa can now seize.

"Hopefully, he realizes the same thing," Desmond said. "Next month could open the door for the rest of your life."

For Espinosa, the month includes mastering his new rollercoaster profession. After getting called up, Espinosa immediately went 9 for 16 with three home runs and 10 RBI in his first four games. Although he went hitless in his next 14 at-bats, he never worried. At every level, he said, he started out hot, hit a lull, and then pulled himself out of it.

"It was easy for me to think, 'I'm going to get back in this,' " Espinosa said. "It's not me. I know I can play here. I have to have confidence to play here, and I knew I was going to come out of this."

On Tuesday night, he hit a pair of line drives snared by Astros fielders. He felt comfortable at the plate for the first time in a week. He called his father, Dan, after the game. "I know I'm right there," Espinosa told him. "I can feel it."

Espinosa knew he had to focus on seeing low pitches better. He started in the third inning, when he smoked a triple to right-center field off Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez, then scored on Desmond's single.

The Astros would tie the score in the fourth, and the Nationals would retake the lead when Michael Morse hit the 12th home run of his season in the fourth.

Nationals starter Jason Marquis exited after facing one batter in the seventh, yielding Jason Michaels's rocket to the left field fence. He had allowed one run and six hits prior to the double, and Marquis exited in line for his third win of the season. After Doug Slaten walked the only batter he faced, Clippard entered and eventually yielded a two-run, lead-losing single to Angel Sanchez.

The game-winning rally came when Justin Maxwell drew a leadoff walk in the seventh. Alberto Gonzalez bunted him to second, and right-handed reliever Jeff Fulchino replaced Rodriguez as Espinosa walked to the plate. He felt nervous, but he always does, before every game he's ever played. "I think it's good," Espinosa said. "When that goes away, I shouldn't be playing."

Fulchino threw a 1-0 fastball to Espinosa, and he blasted it to right field. He sprinted as the ball soared toward the seats. Manager Jim Riggleman thought it was a certain double. The ball clanged on the railing that runs along the top of the scoreboard in right. Espinosa pointed at third base Pat Listach as he circled the bases - yes, Listach told him, it was a home run.

"When he puts it on the barrel," Riggleman said, "it jumps pretty good."

The Nationals saved the game with Joel Peralta and Sean Burnett, Peralta recording four outs and Burnett the final two on a double play. Desmond flipped to Espinosa, and Espinosa fired to first. Espinosa pumped his fist and hugged Desmond, with whom he may form, in Adam Dunn's words, "the double play combination here for years to come."

For Thursday, the future could wait.

"Even when I'm struggling, it's great," Espinosa said. "I love playing baseball. It's the best part of my day."

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