About one-tenth of the way through the season, the Nationals’ most pleasant and essential development has been the re-emergence of Danny Espinosa. Last year at this time, injuries sapped Espinosa’s ability, and his free-swinging style made him unplayable on offense. All spring, Espinosa expressed confidence in his new approach and the Nationals raved about his dialed-down swing. He has still surpassed even the most optimistic projection.
After Espinosa went 3 for 4 with a walk Sunday afternoon – his first three-hit game since Sept. 24, 2012 – he is hitting .313/.365/.521 in 52 plate appearances. In 167 plate appearances last year, as he earned an early-June demotion to Class AAA, Espinosa swatted 12 extra-base hits and drew four walks. He already has and six and three this season.
“I’m happy for him, because I’ve been that guy,” Manager Matt Williams said. “So I know the dedication that it takes to work back and be the player he wants to be. And so far, he’s been really good. His approach is good, his intensity is good, his attitude’s fantastic, and he loves to play. So I’m happy for him.”
Scream “small sample size” if you want, but Espinosa is doing things now he could not do last year. Forget the stats; just watch him. He played through a misdiagnosed wrist fracture last season, but improved health does not fully explain his turnaround. He now trusts his above-average strength will provide power even when he swings easily, in control. He takes his time between pitches and keeps his hands relaxed. He recognizes pitches better, waits back a tick longer and takes more close pitches.
From both sides of the plate, he has sprayed line drives to every sector of the field. Swinging with more control hasn’t cost him power. Saturday afternoon, he clobbered his first home run, pulling a fastball over the high right-field wall. Sunday, he drilled a laser to right off a 98-mph Carlos Martinez fastball to tie the game. Then he sparked the game-winning rally with a rip to left field off Seth Maness.
“Danny is a good player,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “He had some struggles last year, but this game is not easy. You go through ups and downs in your career. His defense is awesome. He’s a good guy in the clubhouse. He’s got a lot of talent. It’s good to see him do his thing out there. It’s good to have him on the team, that’s for sure.”
Espinosa’s 180 happened as the Nationals needed him. Ryan Zimmerman’s broken thumb moved Anthony Rendon to third base and made Espinosa an everyday player, and the Nationals have so far skipped no beats. His defense automatically makes the Nationals better, and his offense is helping, too.
“I’m just trying to help the team and do my part,” Espinosa said. “We’re missing a couple key guys in our lineup. I’m just stepping in and trying to do my part so we can be successful this season and hopefully make a playoff run.
“When you play every day, obviously your timing is a lot better. When you’re facing 96 every single guy out of their ‘pen, if you’re getting one at-bat, it looks like 106. You can’t really slow it down. But more at-bats does help your timing.”
It may be too early to start this discussion, but if Espinosa continues to play like he has, Williams will face difficult playing-time choices once Zimmerman returns. But that remains at least three weeks, and as the baseball saying goes, these things work themselves out. Another infielder may suffer another injury. Things happen.
In the long-term, Espinosa’s hot start offers promise that the Nationals will have a surplus of infielders. If the Nationals want to move Zimmerman to first base full-time in
2014 2015, it now looks like they’ve got a starting second baseman, who will make the salary of a player in his first year of arbitration eligibility already in-house. It’s possible it’s too early to make that statement, but it’s gone from preposterous to possible.
The Nationals knew, even as Espinosa faltered, they had in him a player too talented to give up. General managers peppered Mike Rizzo with phone calls about Espinosa this winter, and he never budged. It may be early, but the Nationals’ faith and Espinosa’s hard work have both paid off.
“I’m not thinking about it,” Espinosa said. “I’m just trying to get a good pitch to hit. I’m not going up there saying up, ‘I feel so good they’re going to give into me.’ I don’t feel like that. I’m just going up there and trying to take every at-bat the same way.”
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NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Rochester 9, Syracuse 3: Brian Goodwin went 2 for 2 with a double and two walks. Manny Delcarmen allowed no runs in 1 1/3 relief innings on one hit and no walks, striking out two.
Harrisburg was off. On Saturday, Michael Taylor, Cutter Dykstra and Destin Hood all hit home runs. Hood, the outfielder who once turned down an Alabama football scholarship, is hitting .378/.404/.467. A.J. Cole allowed two runs in 3 2/3 innings on seven hits and a walk, striking out four.
Potomac 6, Lynchburg 5: Kevin Keyes went 1 for 4 with a homer. Ronald Pena allowed one earned run in five innings on four hits and a walk, striking out two.
Hagerstown 11, Lakewood 6: Wilmer Difo went 2 for 4 with a triple. Drew Ward went 2 for 5 with a double. Jake Johansen allowed five runs in five innings on eight hits and three walks, striking out none.