MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Since the Nationals handed second baseman Danny Espinosa the keys to the starting second baseman’s job in spring training, they’ve assured him that his defense is what’s going to keep him at this level.
The hitting will come, they’ve told him. The defense must be there.
It was certainly there on Saturday night as Espinosa made three spectacular defensive plays in an overall crisp defensive effort team-wide to help Tom Gorzelanny escape danger a few times in the Nationals 5-2 victory over the Marlins.
“We made that clear to him from spring training,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “‘You’re going to stay here on your glove. Eventually, whether you hit in April, whether you hit in June, your glove is going to keep you here.’ He’s worked very hard defensively, and he played an outstanding second base.”
In the bowels of Sun Life stadium Saturday night, reveling in their second victory in as many days, one Nationals coach went as far as to say it might have been one of the best games the team as played in the last two years.
Playing the type of game defensively that was expected out of them quite often coming into the season, the Nationals helped Gorzelanny put up zeroes in six of his seven innings of work. Despite admittedly not feeling his best physically, Gorzelanny walked four but truly stumbled just once – on a first-pitch fastball to John Buck in the second, following a walk to Mike Stanton, that Buck turned around for a two-run home run to left field.
The left-hander walked Emilio Bonifacio in with two outs in the third, but he was erased on a diving catch in shallow right field by Espinosa. He issued a one-out walk to Omar Infante in the fifth but got a ground out and a fly out to quickly get out of the inning.
And in the sixth, clinging to a one-run lead, he walked the speedy Bonifacio to open the inning. But Espinosa handled that one as well with Hanley Ramirez at the plate, taking a step to his right just before the 2-2 pitch that allowed him to make a sliding stop of Ramirez’s grounder and get Bonifacio at second as the lead runner.
“That was a good play tonight,” said right fielder Jayson Werth, who added his own highlight-reel defensive play two batters later. “It was just a really good instinctual play. For whatever reason he took a step over there and if he doesn’t do that, he doesn’t get to that ball.
“I’ve played behind a really good second baseman for a number of years in Philadelphia. I’ve seen one of the best and I think Danny Espinosa’s got a chance to be a really good player.”
But Espinosa’s play loomed even larger when Werth fielded a single down the right field line by Mike Stanton in the same inning and had the presence of mind to see that Stanton had taken an aggressive turn around first base. Ramirez, who was on his way to third, was being held so Werth sent the relay throw to first base and caught Stanton to end the inning – and the Marlins final scoring threat.
“The timing just worked out perfectly,” Werth said. “It was just one of those plays that it’s hard to explain, and you kind of dream about. It shows up right in your lap, and you’re able to put a good throw, and LaRoche shows up right on the bag.
“It was just one of those plays that you dream about. Really, it was perfect.”
The Nationals, who haven’t won a game by more than three runs since April 17, once again got just enough offense to survive. Roger Bernadina, called up earlier in the day to take the place of injured center fielder Rick Ankiel, was 2-for-3 with a walk in the leadoff spot, ripping two singles in his first two at-bats. Ian Desmond followed with a 2-for-4 evening that included a single and a triple as part of a nine-hit night for the Nationals.
But even when they seem to have a pitcher on the ropes, like they did Chris Volstad in a first inning that featured four straight base hits to open the game and two runs scored, the Nationals can’t seem to capitalize. They let Giants’ left-hander Jonathan Sanchez last five innings despite walking or hitting eight of the first 10 batters a week ago and couldn’t deliver the knockout punch to Volstad Saturday.
“That first inning, we got two and that was nice but that had the potential for a lot more and we just couldn’t quite finish it off,” Riggleman said.
The difference Saturday was that they didn’t stop chipping away at Volstad and the Marlins pitchers, adding two more insurance runs in the top of the ninth to seal the victory. After a three-game sweep by the Philadelphia Phillies kicked off a lengthy divisional road trip, the Nationals’ victories in Florida — which have helped facilitate the Marlins’ first three-game losing streak of the season — have been pivotal.
“We feel great,” Espinosa said. “The vibe in the clubhouse is awesome. We’re never going to die. Even after the Philadelphia series, we were all on the same page that we’ve got to come in here, we need to win some games and get back on track.”