Danny Espinosa walked to the plate Thursday night with the game in the balance for the Washington Nationals, a moment the Tampa Bay Rays and Manager Joe Maddon had engineered. They intentionally walked the batter before Espinosa so he would bat left-handed, against convicted pine-tar junkie Joel Peralta, with the score tied in the sixth inning. Espinosa dug in. He is the kind of person who wants to do whatever someone else tells him he cannot.
“I definitely take it personal in a sense that, I want to get ’em,” Espinosa said. “I want to make them pay for what they’re doing.”
With one hack, Espinosa smote Nationals Park’s two newest villains, struck a blow for his maligned left-handed swing and lifted the Nationals to a 5-2 victory and series win against the Rays. Espinosa’s two-out, two-run double into the right field corner hung the loss on Peralta, who pitched as he appealed the eight-game suspension Major League Baseball levied Thursday afternoon.
After Espinosa rolled into second base, he pumped his fist, punctuating the turning point of a game packed with action. Gio Gonzalez needed 50 pitches for the first two innings, but lasted six and earned his ninth win. Reliever Ryan Mattheus entered with two outs in the seventh inning and struck out pinch-hitter Will Rhymes with the bases loaded. Ryan Zimmerman struck out in his first three at-bats, finding new depths in a rocky season, but salvaged his night with a single.
Shortstop Ian Desmond was everywhere. He nailed an RBI single, and afterward he took second base while the Rays fell asleep. He made a dazzling, spinning defensive play up the middle. He calmed Gonzalez after the lefty grew irritated with the umpiring in the second. “He was taking some deep breaths for me,” Gonzalez said.
Desmond even assisted the woman running the mid-inning “Steal Second Base” contest, running to shallow center to hand her the base. When she broke the tape with four seconds to spare, Desmond raised his fist.
“She had no chance otherwise,” Desmond said. “I didn’t want to see her use all that energy and not win.”
Espinosa, the other half of Washington’s dynamic double-play combination, provided the game’s most crucial hit. The Rays had tied the game in the top of the sixth inning on Sean Rodriguez’s single under Gonzalez’s glove, the seventh hit he allowed, matching a season high. Gonzalez, already on one knee, dropped his chin to his chest. He would escape further damage with a strikeout of Elliot Johnson on a backdoor, 96-mph sinker on the black.
In the bottom of the inning, Maddon relieved starter Matt Moore with Peralta, whom the crowd cascaded with boos. Peralta, a National in 2010, had touched off the grumpy-old-managers firestorm between Maddon and Davey Johnson when Johnson caught him with pine tar in his glove Tuesday night.
“I don’t even want to go there,” Johnson said Thursday.
He got two quick outs before catcher Jesus Flores roped a double to left field. Johnson pinch-hit for Gonzalez with Adam LaRoche, who had been a given a rare night out of the lineup. Maddon intentionally walked LaRoche, choosing to pitch to the switch-hitting Espinosa as a left-handed hitter.
“I had a feeling they were going to do,” Espinosa said. “They weren’t going to pitch to Adam. They were to come after to me. I was ready. I was ready to go.”
The numbers suggested it was a wise move. Entering Thursday night, Espinosa had been an all-star as a right-handed hitter and barely playable from the left. He was hitting .188 with a .267 on-base percentage and a .298 slugging percentage left-handed and .365, .459 and .635 right-handed. Espinosa had a .340 on-base percentage overall the past two weeks, and as a right-hander he had walked and doubled off Moore. Now Maddon had Espinosa where he wanted him.
But Espinosa bristled at the notion he can’t hit against right-handers like Peralta. His dad encouraged him to become a switch-hitter at age 5, and he had always considered himself a better, more comfortable hitter as a left-hander.
Espinosa had made an adjustment, using his hands more to swing with a more fluid path to the ball. He started exercising better pitch selection. For most of the season, pitchers had been pounding Espinosa inside. “Now,” Johnson said, “he’s in a better position to handle it.”
Espinosa took a ball and a strike, and then he lashed a 1-1, 82-mph splitter down the right field line. Flores scored easily. LaRoche chugged around third base and slid home. The Nationals had a two-run lead.
“It felt good to have the pressure on me and come through for the team that way,” Espinosa said. “It felt awesome. There have been a couple times I haven’t been able to come through. I got a good pitch to hit right there. It just felt good.”
The Nationals had heir lights-out bullpen in reserve. Mattheus bailed out Craig Stammen and Michael Gonzalez, whiffing Rhymes with a 3-2 sinker and pumping his fist on the way off the field. Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard laid waste to the Rays in the eighth and ninth. Since May 21, the day Clippard became the Nationals’ closer, Clippard and Burnett have combined to allow two runs in 242 / 3 innings.
“I would like to think it’s a six- or seven-inning game,” Mattheus said. “Get us the ball with the lead, we’re going to close the game.”
The Nationals will move to Baltimore on Friday, in first place by 31 / 2 games, past the business of Peralta’s pine tar and the mess that followed. They had won the game and the series because of Espinosa. He wanted to make someone pay, and he did.