Last winter, Danny Espinosa’s father, Dan, the criminal defense attorney and former college player, pitched batting practice to his son every day. Perhaps it was his way of saying, “Not guilty.”
Espinosa’s mother, sisters and brother reminded him “last season was a fluke.” Or a nightmare that no one who’d ever watched him play had anticipated until baseball almost ate his career alive in 2013.
Helping hands reached to one of the game’s lost-soul hitters. Troy Tulowitzki, another product of collegiate baseball powerhouse Long Beach State, invited the Washington Nationals infielder to his home to work out and, perhaps, solve problems in his swing. Instead, Espinosa stayed closer to home and practiced with the young Long Beach State players “just to remember how fun everything was and not take everything so damn seriously.”
Probably most important, Espinosa told everyone close to him that he’d decided how to react to a season from hell in which he’d batted .158, played hurt, been sent to the minors and never even been brought back up in September because the team’s general manager told him that he “hadn’t earned it.”
“I can go one of two ways,” he told his fiancee, Sara Mosher. “I can be mad at the world, say, ‘I’m screwed. I got screwed. Something is owed to me.’ Or I can be just the opposite. I’m going to take the high road. I’m going to work my butt off and get back and be me again.”
In the movies, Espinosa would be back now, as he was in 2011 and 2012 when he played in all but six games for the Nats, seemed to have second base sewn up for a decade and had 38 homers, 37 steals and a strong combined two-year WAR of 5.3. He’d have grabbed the chance to play every day when Ryan Zimmerman broke a finger five weeks ago and entrenched himself again as a starter.
But he hasn’t. This is real baseball. He’s changed his stance, choked the bat a bit. He takes time between pitches to control his breathing. He tries just to make contact, even though the ball still rockets off his bat. He’s better, not fixed. Not yet. He’s exactly in the middle, fighting for his career every day. He’s fielded brilliantly, stabilized the injured Nationals infield and hit just enough — .222 with six homers — to give Washington more homers (15) than any middle infield in baseball. He’s helped save the early part of the Nationals’ season. But he hasn’t saved himself — yet — though hints of recovery tantalize him and the team.
On Monday, Espinosa prevented a run with a reflex snag on a one-hop rocket to his left. In the bottom of the ninth, he ripped a 100-mph fastball from the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman, the game’s hardest thrower, into the left field corner for a double, then scored to send the game to extra innings. Had the Nationals won, it’d have been his victory as much as anyone’s.
On Tuesday, he knocked out the game’s hottest starter, Johnny Cueto, with a two-run lined single on a forkball in a Nationals win. Then on Wednesday, he made two diving stops of grounders, one for an out to his left, the other to his right to keep the ball in the infield. Each saved a run. In three games against the Reds, he reached base five times, once freezing as a fastball drilled him. But he also fanned five times and is actually whiffing at a slightly higher rate than last year.
In the past, Espinosa was seen as a tough, long-hours student of the game, but also destined-for-success cocky and stubborn by some teammates. Now, he’s part of the club of sufferers which includes all but a very few lucky players. “When it first happens to you,” he said of being sent back to Class AAA dragging a .158 batting average, “you feel like you are the only person who has ever dealt with it. It’s not true.
“You look around every big league clubhouse and you see guys like Drew [Storen] and I who were sent down, players who never got that true opportunity or it took a while until something clicked. The game is fun, but at times it’s tough — easy to give up. But the ones who stay here [in the big leagues] a long time, they don’t give up. They’re very impressive to watch.”
Zimmerman is expected to return not long after the June 3 anniversary of Espinosa’s demotion to the minors last year. Then the Nats will have to figure out how much Espinosa plays after that return crowds the infield. No matter what the decision, it will not approach the trauma of last season. His dad saw the news while watching the game on TV and flew coast-to-coast to drive with his son to Syracuse and stay five days. His fiancee arrived to help, in part because Espinosa says, “I enjoy talking about the game, every detail about situations and pitchers. I can’t forget about stuff. And I don’t see myself ever changing in that. But you can sleep and wake up with a smile.”
The Nats will smile if his on-base-plus slugging percentage, currently .669, stays close to his career mark of .697, which is enough for a glove man whom Zimmerman calls “one of very few plus-plus defenders in baseball.” But will it after a 9-for-60 stretch from which he may just be emerging?
“Danny’s a really good player who helps you win a lot of games, extremely valuable,” said General Manager Mike Rizzo on Wednesday. “He has the physical and mental ability to play every day. That’s the ‘sixth tool’ — can you play every day? You can’t win games from the disabled list.”
“If he’s hit by a pitch, he never moves. In the pivot, he ain’t goin’ anywhere. He turns the double play under duress as well as anybody I’ve ever seen,” says Rizzo, who ignored a year of howls from fans about Espinosa’s strikeouts. “That doesn’t bother me. A few years ago, they wanted to run Ian Desmond out of town, too.”
Espinosa is back in D.C., not Syracuse, and probably up to stay. But in what capacity? When the injured return where will he fit?
“I’ll do what they ask me to do,” Espinosa said. “I want to play better. I don’t know what’ll happen. . . .I’ll do whatever helps us. But I want to take advantage of my opportunity now.”
Because this is real, not fiction, Espinosa came to bat on Wednesday against Chapman in the ninth with the same 2-1 deficit. Could he rip another liner into the left field corner? He tried to check his swing on a low pitch and was called out to end the game. Was his reputation or the pitch to blame? Espinosa jabbed his finger at the ump. Then he marched off. Two defensive jewels to save runs in a 2-1 loss, but three strikeouts.
Can he forget, sleep and come back with a smile — or at least with his new approach and his determination still intact? Not much rides on it. Only the shape of the rest of his career.