As Danny Espinosa trotted around the bases for the second time Tuesday night, Cliff Lee glanced at him as if to wonder, “Who is this guy?” He was looking at the player who, perhaps as much as any hitter, has carried the Washington Nationals this season. Maybe, Lee was watching the next National League rookie of the year.
Espinosa’s two home runs led the Nationals’ six-run barrage against Lee in a 10-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies before 21,107 at Nationals Park, their second consecutive assault on one of Philadelphia’s venerated aces. This time, unlike after they scored four runs on three homers against Roy Halladay on Monday, the Nationals closed the deal and snapped a six-game losing streak against the Phillies.
Jason Marquis allowed two runs in 61 / 3 innings, and the Nationals piled on the runs until they hit two milestones: They became the first team to score 10 runs against the Phillies this season. And by pulverizing them by eight runs, the Nationals had their largest margin of victory against Philadelphia since baseball returned to Washington. After so many lopsided defeats, the Nationals struck a blow with a rout of their own.
“I don’t think that the Phillies think they can roll over us,” Espinosa said. “I don’t think in their clubhouse they think, ‘Oh, this is a weakling, we’re going to roll over these guys.’ ”
Espinosa gave them no choice. When the Nationals lost Monday, the constant over those two games was Espinosa. The day after he mashed a home run against Halladay, he drilled two off Lee while going 3 for 4, including a three-run blast that capped a stunning five-run third and a solo homer that provided insurance in the sixth.
Espinosa’s second career two-homer game gave him 10 this season, tying him with Mark Trumbo for the major league lead among rookies and putting him second behind Robinson Cano among second basemen. Espinosa is the only player to hit a homer off both Halladay and Lee this year.
And then there’s this: Espinosa has hit 16 home runs in his first 74 career games — no second baseman since the 1961 expansion has hit so many homers in so few games. Precisely one-third into the season, Espinosa is on pace for 30 homers, a feat achieved by seven rookies in baseball history.
“An electric player,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “He can do it all.”
With Ryan Zimmerman out of the lineup since April 9, Espinosa has emerged as a candidate for most valuable National, his .217 batting average notwithstanding. He leads the team in home runs, RBI (33, also the most among rookies) and wins above replacement at 1.6 entering Tuesday, according to FanGraphs.com.
“Definitely underrated,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “He’s under the radar. He’s got some pop. He fits right in with this club. Good kid, good ballplayer.”
Tuesday, Espinosa led an improbable attack on Lee.
The last time Halladay and Lee pitched at Nationals Park, in mid-April, they dealt consecutive complete-game victories, Lee’s a shutout in which he threw 99 pitches. Ever-confident, Espinosa was undeterred. He played college ball at powerhouse Long Beach State, a pedigree that makes winning his expectation, even when Halladay and Lee take the mound.
“I mean, we can hit ’em,” Espinosa said. “They’re great pitchers, obviously. But they’ve had losses before.”
Over the past two days, the Nationals became the first opponent to score at least four runs off them in back-to-back days. They beat Lee every way. Before Tuesday, he had walked three batters in a game twice in 39 starts since opening day 2010. Ian Desmond, Ivan Rodriguez and Jerry Hairston made it three times in 40 starts.
Lee held the Nationals scoreless in the first two innings before the Nationals exploded in the third. Werth drove in the first run with a sacrifice fly. After Michael Morse added another run with a broken-bat single, Espinosa came to the plate.
Espinosa blasted the first pitch he saw — an 84-mph change-up — into the visitors’ bullpen in left. Espinosa also drilled his homer against Halladay on a change-up, but then again, he was batting left-handed. Espinosa led off the sixth inning and worked a 3-1 count. Lee tried a 90-mph, two-seam fastball, and Espinosa simply crushed it, sending it all the way to the blue seats in front of the Red Porch.
After the Nationals’ battered Philadelphia’s bullpen, every starter had a hit. They last scored double-digit runs against the Phillies on April 27, 2009, a span of 40 games. They lost that day — it last happened in a win on March 31, 2008.
The Nationals started their night with a team meeting about an hour before first pitch — “just a reinforcement,” Marquis said. They ended it listening to hip-hop in their clubhouse. Werth briefly chatted with owner Mark Lerner, who nibbled on an ice cream cone. As Espinosa walked through clubhouse, Laynce Nix yelled: “There you go Danny! Yeah!”
One win may not solve all the Nationals’ issues. But if John Lannan can win his first game against the Phillies and beat Roy Oswalt on Wednesday, they would secure their third series victory over Philadelphia since 2008. “That,” Espinosa said, “could be a major turning point.”