JUPITER, Fla. — At second base for years, Danny Espinosa flashed his quick feet and cannon arm but not like he did at shortstop in Saturday’s 7-0 win over the Cardinals. In the second inning, Tommy Pham hit a ground ball between Espinosa and third baseman Scott Sizemore. Watching from the bench, Manager Dusty Baker saw Espinosa range deep into the hole to nab the ball but didn’t want him to throw the ball because he thought there was no chance for a play.
Baker’s “oh no” mutter turned into a “great play!” shout. Back at his natural position, Espinosa channeled his inner Derek Jeter, pulling off a perfect jump-throw to get Pham.
“He’s getting his groove back,” said starter Tanner Roark, who benefitted from Espinosa’s play. “… He’s fun to watch.”
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Two innings later, Espinosa was more than that. He couldn’t cleanly catch Ruben Tejada’s hard line drive. Espinosa collected the ball off the ground, blazed the ball across the diamond and still got Tejada out.
“That’s the first time he’s really done something really spectacular,” Baker said. “Everything else is kinda routine but that was a spectacular play. That was one of the best plays. … I tell you one thing: he got something to throw with at shortstop. Even when he knocked that one line drive down, I didn’t think he had a chance.”
While he works to improve his slow spring start at the plate, Espinosa has shined at his favorite position.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s exciting. I enjoy that side of the defense, being able to make those plays and take hits away. I really enjoy it.”
Espinosa also helped the Nationals score. He went 0 for 2 with a walk — he is 3 for 27 this spring — but he made a productive out when the Nationals had a scoring chance. With runners on second and third with one out, he hit the ball hard at second baseman Kolten Wong. Espinosa reached on an error but a hard-hit ball — not a strikeout as he has been prone to do — allowed Wilson Ramos and Chris Heisey to score.
“Just trying not to get too jumpy at the ball and let the ball get deep,” he said.
Espinosa’s defense helped Roark amass five scoreless innings despite giving up six hits and walking one. Roark pitched out of jams, but they drove up his pitch count. Baker had intended for Roark to pitch six innings.
“I told [pitching coach] Mike [Maddux] on the bench, ‘Houdini just got out of another one,'” Baker said. “Everybody can’t do that. You don’t win 15 games. I don’t understand how you win 15 and go to the bullpen.”
Roark has quietly had a solid spring: 14 innings, 14 hits, one earned run, three walks and 13 strikeouts. After an up-and-down season primarily in the bullpen last year, he entered camp fighting for a spot in the rotation and earned one.
“I’m always going to come in fighting for a job,” Roark said. “When I was in the minor leagues and I’d come up to big league camp, I wanted to take someone else’s job. I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be in the rotation. I wanted to be in the bullpen, anyway, anyhow. So there’s guys in the minor leagues now that would love to take my spot. I don’t want that to happen. So I’m going to keep on top of that and never let my guard down.”
Because of Friday’s rainout, Roark had to unexpectedly stay in Jupiter overnight, at the same hotel as Baker and the coaching staff. Joe Ross, who was originally supposed to start Saturday, stayed in Viera to pitch on the minor league side. Roark didn’t think needed a change of clothes when he left Viera on Friday.
“Still got the same pair of everything,” he said.
>>> In his bid to make the team, left-handed reliever Sean Burnett tossed a scoreless inning, flicking 87-88 mph sinkers for quick outs. The feel-good story of Nationals’ camp has thrown 6 2/3 scoreless innings, giving the team a tough decision on whether to keep him for the season-opening bullpen. He has an April 1 opt-out for his minor league deal.
Another bullpen candidate, Matt Belisle, also fired a scoreless inning. The veteran right-hander has allowed three runs in 5 1/3 spring innings, finally healthy after bone chips were removed from his elbow in October.
“I feel better than ever,” he said. “It’s great not to have two chunks in my arm. It’s fabulous to throw without a knife [in your arm].”
Belisle played under Baker in Cincinnati, and came to Washington with a hope of making the team. He has a Sunday opt-out for his minor league deal.
“That’s something I can’t control,” he said. “I have to get on the bus, go to bed and report tomorrow. I’ve never been in these situations. It’s so different for me. All I know is how to prepare for another season.”
The Nationals’ final bullpen decisions will go down to the wire. “If we had our minds made up, we woulda said so by now,” Baker said.
>>> Before the game, Baker said that despite the team’s record (16-4-2) he wanted them to improve all-around. Baker also said the Nationals are giving thought to skipping starts at the beginning of the season because there are two off-days in the first week. The Nationals wouldn’t need a fifth starter until April 13, the eighth game of the season. More on that later.