- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Neither of them want to talk about it. They don’t want to speculate, there is no friendly wager and they’re not checking in nightly to see how the other is doing, but Freddie Freeman and Danny Espinosa know they’re in competition.

Toss in Craig Kimbrel, the Atlanta Braves’ fresh-faced closer, and Washington Nationals fans are getting a glimpse this week at the top three candidates for rookie of the year — but don’t tell them that.

“I try not to pay attention to any of it, actually,” said Espinosa, a second baseman. “I prefer everyone would leave me alone about it. I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t like to talk about it.”

“I don’t really want to talk about it,” Freeman, a first baseman, said with a smile. “I just go out there trying to help the team win.”

There was a time, nearly 10 years ago, that Freeman and Espinosa weren’t major league infielders but teammates on a high school travel team in Southern California. They certainly didn’t think then, especially because of a three-year age difference, that they’d be competing for the NL Rookie of the Year award.

“It’s just fun,” Freeman said. “Seeing each other and playing in the same division, it’s kind of cool. Knowing him since before he signed is pretty special. Being able to grow up and play against him and see him in the big leagues, it’s fun. To be honest, you kind of put the rookie of the year and all that aside and just enjoy playing baseball.”

That’s what Espinosa wants to do, noting,”I’m pretty far behind right now.” A 9-for-64 skid since the All-Star break heading into Tuesday’s game hasn’t helped his cause. The two do check in on one another, but both insisted it’s out of friendly curiosity.

“I think I’ve had a lot of good at-bats,” Espinosa said of his recent struggles. “I think I’ve hit the ball pretty hard. I’m just getting pretty unlucky. It’s frustrating. It’s definitely frustrating but at the same time, after I have those at-bats where I line out, I’m going, ‘Man, what else can I do?’ “

Despite his superb defense and outstanding power numbers, Espinosa’s average has languished. After Monday night, he was hitting .226, even with 17 homers and 55 RBI. Freeman also has been drawing raves for his work at first base, and he’s hitting .392 with two homers, six doubles and nine RBI since the break. He’s hitting .296 for the season

It’s a situation Espinosa knows he’ll have to rectify if he wants to keep pace with Freeman — whose team will be in the thick of a playoff race — and Kimbrel, who has appeared in 54 games and is tied for second in the National League with 31 saves in 36 chances.

“I like my guy,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson when asked to handicap the rookie race. “Middle of the diamond guy? Produces runs, hits home runs, outstanding defensively. If he doesn’t win it, he’ll be right at the top.”

Espinosa has yet to miss a game, starting 105 of the 108 before Tuesday and coming in as a replacement in the other three. There is a chance that he could play all 162, something that could help the cause of the man Johnson called “maybe pound-for-pound the strongest guy on the team.” Johnson has marveled on several occasions at the work Espinosa does in the weight room. At 190 pounds, Espinosa does dumbbell presses with 90 pounds in each hand among many other activities that have earned the awe of his manager.

“I’ve gone in the weight room and I pick up a little weight, and he picks up one about two or three times heavier,” Johnson said. “He’s just awful strong. I’ve talked to him a time or two about getting him a break. He’s not really in favor of that, and I’m not really, either.

“I’d like to, and I probably will, at some point just give him a breather, but I enjoy watching him play, whether his hits fall or not.”

NOTE: The Nationals recalled right-handed reliever Collin Balester from Triple-A Syracuse for the fourth time Tuesday, bringing him up this time to serve in a long relief role as a complement to left-hander Tom Gorzelanny. Balester is 1-1 with a 4.61 ERA in eight major league appearances this season. He struck out 46 batters in 39 1/3 innings of relief at Triple-A.

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