ST. LOUIS — Danny Espinosa insists his performance in his first-ever postseason experience in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Sunday, in which he went 0 for 4 and struck out three times, wasn’t because he was rattled by the magnitude of the situation or a left shoulder that troubled him a month ago. The 25-year-old second baseman just didn’t adjust well to the shadows that split the mound and the batter’s box at Busch Stadium.
“I’m perfectly healthy,” he said before Monday’s game. “Just had a hard time seeing the curveball yesterday. Shadows were really tough for me. Outside of that, I felt great. My swing felt great. I pulled the ball foul [later]. It meant nothing, but it was a free and easy swing for me.”
In Game 2, Espinosa looked more comfortable, going 1 for 3. He stroked the ball harder in his final two at-bats, though he had only one hit to show for it. His second-to-last at-bat ended with a jaw-dropping catch by Jon Jay against the center field wall that was sure to be extra bases.
In the opening game of the series, Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright puzzled Nationals hitters with his big, biting curveball and, to some degree, the contrast in light and dark didn’t help. Wainwright fed Espinosa two curveballs in his first at-bat — one that he missed and another he took — and struck him out looking on a sinker. In his three at-bats against Espinosa, Wainwright threw him five curveballs, two that capped strikeouts.
“I don’t want to make an excuse,” Espinosa said. “That’s why I didn’t want to make an excuse for my shoulder. I go out there and take full responsibility for good or bad. I’ll own up to whatever it is. But yesterday, I did struggle with the shadows.”
In early September, Espinosa played with what he said was no strength in his shoulder after diving for a groundball against the Miami Marlins. An MRI exam revealed that he had a bone bruise inside the capsule on his shoulder. He received a cortisone shot and has played every game since then, starting all but three.
Since he received his cortisone shot, he is hitting .224 in 16 games with one home run, four runs batted in and 15 strikeouts.
“I’m sure at times I have been [overly aggressive],” Espinosa said. “I try to be patient. But yeah, there’s always times with every player you get a little overly aggressive but I feel good.”
From his perspective, Johnson thinks the postseason experience was indeed a factor. “He’s healthy,” he said. “I think he’s just a little amped up. He finished the season kind of being a little overly aggressive, and I think the situation’s kind of pushing him to be a little overly aggressive. But he’s tough and he’s smart. He’ll be all right.”
In the eighth inning, Johnson called for Espinosa, a power hitter with 17 home runs, to lay down a safety squeeze with Michael Morse at third base, Ian Desmond at first with no outs and trailing 2-1. Espinosa was allowed to swing at the first pitch and then bunt. After a swinging strike, Espinosa placed the ball to the right of the pitcher’s mound and moved Desmond over to second base. Morse had to read the ball and the play, and didn’t break home. The bunt play, coupled with Espinosa’s speed, put the pressure on reliever Mitchell Boggs to make the play.
At the time, it was a curious decision. But it moved both runners into scoring position and allowed Kurt Suzuki, perhaps the Nationals’ most clutch hitter in recent weeks, to come to the plate. In other words, the Nationals traded three chances to tie the score with a single for two chances to take the lead with a single. And that’s exactly what happened when pinch hitter Tyler Moore flared a ball to right field for a hit with two outs. If Espinosa was swinging better that game, it’s likely that the call wouldn’t have been made.
But in the end, the Nationals benefited from the bunt, and Espinosa believes he is perfectly fine.
“You’re not playing in front of 50,000 die-hard Cardinals fans,” he said. “ . . . There was a little butterflies going in between but everyone, long season, but . . . no, it’s not hard to get up for the game. It’s what you live for your whole life, to play in the postseason. I had a great time.”
More on the Nats-Cardinals NLDS:
Box score: Cardinals 12, Nationals 4
Boswell: They put a spell on Zimmermann
D.C. Sports Bog: Harper’s war paint in St. Louis
Photos: Scenes from Busch Stadium