- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Mike Rizzo was sitting in the stands with his assistant general manager, Bob Miller, watching the Washington Nationals on their last road trip when Danny Espinosa fouled off a ball that swelled his knee to a painful size.

“He’s going to have to come out,” Miller said to Rizzo.

“Are you kidding me?” the Nats’ general manager replied. “Do you see a bone sticking out of his leg? He’s not coming out.”

And he didn’t, because Espinosa is, as his manager Matt Williams said, “a tough cuss.”

It’s that toughness that endeared him to Rizzo and former Nationals manager Davey Johnson, and won over Williams when he succeeded Johnson — of course, along with his outstanding defensive skills.

“He’s the best infielder in the organization,” one National League scout said.

But you needed to be tough to watch Espinosa — who hit 38 home runs, drove in 122 runs and stole 37 bases in his first two full seasons in 2011 and 2012 — struggle at the plate over the last several years, with a helpless .219 average and 122 strikeouts in 333 at-bats last season. It was even tougher in 2013, when Espinosa, the starting second baseman on the NL East championship squad a year before, was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse in June after playing with a fractured right wrist and torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. He had batted just .158 at the time of his demotion and was symbolizing the team’s struggles that season.

Just as it appeared time was running out on Espinosa’s Washington career, it turns out the patience bought by his toughness and his glove may have finally paid off.

After the great Bryce Harper and the incomparable Max Scherzer, the most valuable player for the Nationals this season may be Espinosa, who, in 61 games, is hitting .262 with eight home runs, 20 RBI, 34 runs, a .348 on-base percentage and a .457 slugging percentage. He’s also played games at nearly every position on the field.

“He does a lot of things on the diamond that help us win,” Williams said. “He has a desire to play, an immense desire to win and he is ready to go every single day. You can’t ask anything more than that.”

Espinosa, 28, has been the team’s safety net in a year defined by injuries. He filled in for Anthony Rendon at second base and third base, Ryan Zimmerman at first base, Jayson Werth in left field and Ian Desmond at shortstop. Williams puts him out there at positions he has never played before — like first base or left field — because of the confidence they have in his glove.

He had the signature play on Saturday in the eighth inning of Max Scherzer’s no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates, playing deep with the shift on, getting to the left-handed hitting Pedro Alvarez’s ground ball and making a tough throw to get Alvarez in time.

“That goes to Espi working hard,” Scherzer said. “You have to realize what he is being asked to do — play left, first, short, and second, and for him to make that play shows how much hard work he is putting into his game.”

If he hits like he has — and has left the days of the .219 average behind him — Espinosa won’t be a safety net anymore. He’ll be in the starting lineup, perhaps for years to come, because club officials have been waiting for this moment.

“He’s really worked hard,” Williams said. “He looks for the opportunity to play, he appreciates it every time he is in the lineup, and he has played very well, regardless of where we have put him — first base, left field, all three of the other infield positions. He is versatile. He laid down a perfect bunt the other day for a base hit. He steals bases.

“He has power, speed, the defense is great,” Williams said. “He’ll foul off a ball off his knee, it will blow up to the size of a watermelon, and you won’t hear any complaint. He’ll be ready to go. He’s a special player.”

This spring was supposed to be Espinosa’s last gasp with the organization. The front office had given him marching orders to try to give up switch-hitting and just bat from the right side of the plate.

In five major league seasons, Espinosa batted just .213 from the left side of the plate, while hitting .271 from the right side.

But once Nationals management saw how hard Espinosa worked this spring to bat from the right side of the plate, they said it was OK for him to hit however comfortable he felt once the season started.

As the year has gone on, Espinosa has improved enough from the left side of the plate to keep putting him back in the lineup — and if he continues, he will be part of the Nationals’ infield next season, either at second base or shortstop, the position he was drafted to play in the third round in 2008.

Why has it finally seemed to click for Espinosa?

“I feel like my top hand is getting to the ball better this year,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe time, maybe age, maybe just not looking too far ahead or looking too far back, being prepared for every at bat, I don’t know.”

It took some time for him to get over being sent down to Syracuse in 2013. He is tough — but that toughness also makes him stubborn.

“It wasn’t easy to take,” he said. “I wasn’t producing. Going through the injury while not producing, it really hurt. You feel like you’ve failed, and you never want to experience that.

“But I told myself that I wasn’t the only one this ever happened to,” Espinosa said. “There have been some great ballplayers who were sent up and down, and maybe sometimes it’s part of the learning experience, something that you need to go through. It puts you back where you need to be.”

He leaned on his family and friends to get through those times, and appreciates Nationals fans “sticking by my side. When I came back to the big leagues, I got a great ovation from the fans, and that felt great.”

Espinosa is now a fan favorite, as they see the toughness — and the talent — the Nationals were willing to wait for.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.


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