Danny Espinosa prepares to take over at second base for the Washington Nationals

After a busy offseason, the Nationals open spring training in Viera, Fla.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 12:58 AM

VIERA, FLA. - Danny Espinosa sat in the clubhouse at Class AAA Syracuse last August, absorbed the news and did not flinch. He had played only shortstop as a professional, since 2008, when the Washington Nationals drafted him in the third round. Now a coach was telling Espinosa he would play second base. "All right," he thought.

"No big reaction," Espinosa said this week. "If they told me to go to left field, that's the way to find a way up, I was going to do it."

Reaching the major leagues, all the way up, by the end of last year had been Espinosa's goal. The switch to second, he recognized, would help achieve that goal and another: becoming an everyday, major league starter by opening day 2011.

Espinosa used his position change and an impressive late-season cameo last season to entrench himself, at 23, as the Nationals' second baseman entering this season.

This is where Espinosa has expected himself to be since he signed his first contract, a lofty aim some of his friends and family warned against. He never listened.

"Everybody tells me not to do it," Espinosa said. "To me, I have to do it. I've always tried to push myself beyond what I am. Maybe those goals are beyond my reach. I'm still going to set them that way."

Espinosa has pushed himself since the summer of 2003, when he underwent the formative experience of his baseball life. He was 16, between his sophomore and junior years at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. He had only played junior varsity shortstop, but Espinosa received an invitation to try out for the 16-and-under national team. So did Mike Torres, the varsity shortstop at Mater Dei.

Thirty-six players had been invited to the University of Southern California for the five-day Team USA tryout. Coaches there had scouted and carefully chosen every player. After two days, they noticed something off about Espinosa.

"Danny wasn't putting out the effort and energy some of the other coaches thought he had," said Don Freeman, the coach of that team. "I think he thought 'Well, this is going to be fun, but Mike is in front.' He's in this subservient high school mode where 'This guy is the starter at my high school, so he's better than me.' "

Freeman pulled Espinosa aside before the third day. He told him, "Danny, you're capable of doing a lot better. Don't let anybody here, even your own teammate, intimidate you mentally. You've got the same chance of making this team as Mike does.

"From that point on, he turned it on - 'it's okay for me to do the best I can,' " Freeman added. "From that point on, it wasn't much of a choice who we were going to keep."

Freeman and his staff chose Espinosa over Mike Torres. They made him the starting second baseman, and Espinosa started seven of Team USA's eight games. He batted .463 and made a crucial, diving stop in the USA's victory over host Taiwan in the gold medal game. Espinosa never again doubted his ability or restricted his goals.

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