HARRIS: On Opening Day full of storylines, Danny Espinosa makes quiet impact

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

NEW YORK — Eight pitches total. A ball fouled off, and later another.

Down a run in the top of the ninth. Make an out and the game is over.

Pass on a pitch that’s tough to lay off. Another foul.

Finally, there’s ball four.

The Nationals stayed alive in their season opener against the Mets and went on to win in extra innings, thanks in no small part to one very impressive, very patient trip to the plate.

“A great at-bat,” said Nats center fielder Denard Span, who took advantage by stepping in and knocking in the tying run. “That’s probably the best at-bat that I’ve seen him take. He laid off some nasty pitches. To me, that was the game right there.”

The man at the plate who drew Span’s praise? Danny Espinosa, once seen as the team’s fixture at second base and now adjusting to a new role as a utilityman. A guy who has a bit of a history of chasing pitches maybe he shouldn’t chase. A guy relegated to the minor leagues last year, whose future with the team was in question.

There were about a zillion storylines in the Nats’ 9-7 victory over the Mets in 10 innings, from the managing debut of Washington’s Matt Williams to the major-league debut of winning pitcher Aaron Barrett.

There was a scary moment early where it looked like Bryce Harper may have gotten hurt. Catcher Wilson Ramos, happy and proud to be in the cleanup spot in the opener, may be hurt. He left the game early and awaits further testing on his left hand.

Starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, rocked by a three-run home run in the first inning, settled in and finished with 10 strikeouts in six innings. Adam LaRoche smoked a home run in his first at-bat. Anthony Rendon drove in four runs.

It would be easy for Espinosa’s at-bat to get lost in all that.

It was not lost on his teammates.

“You’re sitting there for three hours on a cold day and you’re asked to go up there against a tough pitcher,” LaRoche said. “That was huge.”

Espinosa doesn’t much like talking about his struggles of last year and who can blame him at this point? He can’t change what happened. He’s trying to embrace his latest challenge as a utility player. He showed up for spring training determined to be a better player, determined to win a job even if it wasn’t the job he had at the start of last season.

“We saw a new Danny in spring training,” LaRoche said. “There’s no question, no doubt about it. His mindset, his approach. You could see it from day one in the spring. You knew he was going to enjoy every day, enjoy every at-bat, just go up there with a relaxed approach. He worked hard at it. I think you’re going to see a lot of at-bats like that.”

Espinosa can play short as well as second. After his ninth-inning plate appearance, he stayed in the game at second and Rendon moved to third. Williams has said several times that Espinosa is going to get plenty of chances. They may not come daily, but they will come.

When they do, Espinosa vows to be ready whether it is as a starter or off the bench. A walk, as he showed Monday, is as good as hit. His approach may have been as impressive as the actual execution. He didn’t go up to try and put the Nats ahead with a blast. He went up with the idea to get on somehow, to extend the inning, to give Span a chance.

“I’m taking at-bats as they come,” Espinosa said. “I got my number called, I was ready, I was prepared. I felt good going into my at-bat.”

Facing Mets closer Bobby Parnell, Espinosa fell behind 1-2. He took a ball. He fouled one off. He laid off a knuckle curve in the dirt. He fouled off one more and then watched a fastball go by for ball four. He jogged to first. Ian Desmond, who reached on a single, headed for second. Span stepped in and doubled on the first pitch to score Desmond with the tying run.

After the game, Nats broadcaster F.P. Santangelo and Espinosa’s fellow utilityman Kevin Frandsen heaped praise on Espinosa for laying off the pitches he let go by and fouling off the others. They would have been out, they said.

Espinosa took it all with a smile. Though he’s not at all used to a pinch-hitting role, he said he was calm at the plate and determined to control the at-bat.

“It was a thing where definitely I felt comfortable,” Espinosa said. “I felt pretty relaxed. I stayed in my routine, stuck with what I wanted to do. I tried to battle. I got two strikes but tried to make him keep coming to me rather than chasing one, make him throw a strike. I didn’t want it to be rushed, didn’t want to feel uncomfortable.

“I ended up drawing a walk. I was pleased with my at-bat.”

As well he should have been.

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