ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Nationals were down to to their last out Monday night when Danny Espinosa turned on the first pitch he saw from closer Jordan Walden down the right field line and into the seats at Angels Stadium. Suddenly the Nationals found themselves in a tie game, even though they’d eventually lose in the 10th.
It was the 15th home run of the season for the second baseman — the most by a rookie second baseman before the All-Star break in baseball history — and perhaps even more remarkably, it was his ninth of the season that has come when the Nationals are within a run. It was also his fourth of the season on the first pitch.
“He throws hard,” Espinosa said. “He’s got his velocity up to 100 miles an hour and I was just truly trying to be ready for a fastball. When a guy throws hard, you can’t sit. It’s not like you can look for offspeed and adjust to his fastball. I was just really trying to be ready for his fastball and got a pitch to hit.”
It looked good from the moment it left the bat and began barreling toward the fans in right field — fans who, despite Espinosa’s hometown ties (he grew up, in his estimation less than five miles from Angels Stadium) threw the ball back.
“He only hit that thing like 500 feet,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “I’m glad I’ve got a good rotator cuff because he almost broke my arm when he (high-fived) it.”
Espinosa’s homer total alone is something to talk about. Johnson, who was himself a pretty accomplished middle infield hitter, hit more than 15 home runs in a season just twice in his career. (Before we move on from this point, I just want to mention that Johnson actually hit 43 home runs in, 24 more than his next-highest total.) But what may be more impressive about Espinosa is his so-called “clutch” statistics.
Espinosa hits .346 when even one runner is on base. He hits .316 with runners in scoring position and he hits just .182 with the bases empty. He also hits .259 with two outs and runners in scoring position and .281 in “late and close” situations.
“He doesn’t get too excited,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “He’s a very even-keeled guy. He just loves to play baseball. He plays the game hard, whether it’s the first inning or the ninth inning. It’s pretty impressive what he’s done for this first half of the year, you could say now.
“He makes adjustments well. He was hitting right around .200 a few weeks ago and people were kind of doubting him. He just kept working hard, and now he’s slowly climbing to where he wants to be. But as far as a young second baseman in the game, I don’t know if there’s one better than him.”
His offensive power, as impressive as it’s been in the first half, still comes second to his defense. Monday night, he helped turn one of the better double plays you’ll see, combining with Ryan Zimmerman on one end and Michael Morse on the other and he also saved a potentially explosive inning when he backed up first base to corral an errant throw from pitcher John Lannan on a bunt attempt.
His new manager was impressed.
“He made two plays today that, you know, I thought I was pretty good but I’m not sure I could make them,” Johnson said. “Just a phenomenal player.”
As for that home run ball the fans threw back? Espinosa wasn’t offended.
“No,” he said with a smile. “The Angels never liked me.”