For the first time since the Nationals returned to full strength a week and a half ago, the odd man out, Danny Espinosa, was back in the lineup. While Ryan Zimmerman was injured and returned but to left field, Espinosa manned second base daily. When Bryce Harper returned on June 30, however, Espinosa and his .217 average were pushed to the bench. In that span, he has had only one plate appearance and been a late-game defensive substitution twice.
But with the Nationals in Baltimore on Wednesday, Manager Matt Williams will have Zimmerman serve as the designated hitter, Anthony Rendon at third and Espinosa starting at second for the first time in 12 days. With groundball machine Doug Fister on the mound, the Nationals had an opportunity to use their best infield defense.
Williams spoke glowingly about Espinosa’s attitude during the past two weeks. Espinosa’s routine has changed but he does everything he can to stay as fresh and active as he can. He lifts, takes early and extra groundballs, spends more time in the batting cages and keeps his legs loose in case he needs to serve as a pinch-runner. “I just prepare as if I’m going to play,” he said.
The day Harper returned, Williams spoke with Espinosa and told him he would return to his role from the beginning of the season as a useful back-up infielder. Williams also told Espinosa that a bulk of his at-bats would come against left-handed pitchers, which would allow him to hit from the right side where he has excelled in limited chances this season.
“I knew that was the deal to start the year anyway, so I understood it,” Espinosa said. “I’m glad the whole team is back and healthy.”
Williams had the chance to start Espinosa against three straight left-handed pitchers earlier this week but didn’t. Williams said he isn’t surprised at how little Espinosa has played recently. “It’s a question of where we’re at right now and how we’re going toward the break and how our health is, all of those things play a factor,” he said. Espinosa has taken the lack of playing time in stride.
“I just try to take care of what I have to do to help the team,” he said. “If that’s my role, that’s my role. If that’s what I’m being asked to do, that’s what I’m being asked to do. And I’ll do it to the best of my ability. You’re in the big leagues. I’m on a winning team. I’m happy with what’s going on. I’m glad everyone’s back and healthy. You just go out and do your role, and when your name is called upon, you do your best job.”
Of course, Espinosa would like to play but he understands what he is being asked of him. Zimmerman and Harper have both said they believe the Nationals should be playing Espinosa at second base.
“I think the competitor inside of you always wants to play,” Espinosa said. “You don’t really get used to not playing every day. It’s just that’s our role and you accept the role for what it is at the time, knowing that there are possibilities of a pinch-hit, there are possibilities of injuries. God forbid some people get hurt, but you still have to stay ready if your name is called.”
Williams has been one of Espinosa’s biggest backers, even since winter when he was hired. And he said he appreciates how Espinosa has handled the change and worked to improve his swing.
“We know that when he puts the head of the bat on it it’s pretty special,” he said. “It hasn’t been as frequent as he would like it or we would like it or anybody else would like. It’s just fact. That being said he could shorten up a little bit. He can do other things he has to do to make contact. He works at it. He’ll continue to do that. At this point, that’s all he can do. Just grind every day. Early grounders. Extra hitting. And all of that stuff. He’s doing everything he can possibly do to get back to where he wants to be and we’re encouraging and helping him as much as we can.”