He watched Espinosa collect the ball as first baseman Chad Tracy turned and braced for possible contact with Schumaker. Instead, Tracy got the ball on a line throw from Espinosa a split-second before Schumaker’s foot hit the bag for the second out of the ninth inning. Tracy wasn’t surprised.
“Nothing surprises me about that kid,” Tracy said Tuesday, recalling the play.
And after the Nationals sealed their series victory over St. Louis, a series in which Espinosa made several key plays, it was all Zimmerman could do not to put an empathetic hand on his shoulder and joke with him: “Welcome to the club.”
“People get used to it,” Zimmerman, himself a Gold Glover, said of the way Espinosa has taken to the position the past two years, making even impressive plays look routine, much the way Zimmerman does at third base.
“I think he’s one of the best second basemen in the league,” Zimmerman said. “The balls that he gets to, the plays that he makes, obviously he’s got a crazy arm, but his range is really good to begin with, and he’s gotten really good at turning double plays.
“I think he’s kind of an undervalued guy. Maybe not by us, but I don’t think a lot of people really take notice of him. But if you’re talking about by position, I mean, he’s a pretty good guy to have at second base.”
Zimmerman’s praise extended to Espinosa’s offense as well, hitting .255 entering Tuesday’s game with 15 home runs, 49 RBI and 17 stolen bases. And manager Davey Johnson extended his critique there as well, noting that the second-year infielder’s biggest adjustment has come at the plate and in recognizing how he’s being pitched, particularly in the second half where he’s hit .290 with a .338 on-base percentage and .465 slugging percentage.
But his improvements defensively shouldn’t go overlooked, especially since he’s shuttled between second and his natural shortstop position for 34 games with Ian Desmond shelved by a left oblique strain. Along with increased comfort with his teammates and their abilities, after playing short, second seems just that much easier.
“I try to treat second like short,” Espinosa said. “I’m going to play second base like I’m going to play short. [But compared to shortstop] the throw is not hard. The most challenging thing is the double play, and I feel like I turn almost every double play I get. I think I turn a lot of double plays a lot of second basemen couldn’t based on my arm strength.
“So, I definitely feel more comfortable because I’m more used to it, more familiar with the people playing around me.”
Espinosa has turned 52 double plays at second base, plus another 21 at short, in 135 games. Last year, he averaged 1.56 double plays per game. This season, he’s turning 1.85 a game. His Ultimate Zone Rating, according to fangraphs.com, is 6.5, up from 1.0 in 2011, meaning he’s saved approximately 6.5 runs.
That is the second-best mark in the NL, behind Chicago’s Darwin Barney.
“The throws from third, usually, when turning double plays are where you constantly learn better ways to be in position for throws that get on you with quick movement,” said Johnson, a former second baseman. “I think he’s done a great job. … You constantly learn, and his footwork has gotten better and better. I feel he hasn’t even had to look at the bag when he gets the throw from short and third.”