- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 18, 2021

Paolo Espino officially heard at 5 p.m. Saturday night that he’d be pitching for the Washington Nationals the following afternoon. With Stephen Strasburg scratched from his scheduled start due to right shoulder inflammation, Espino was called up from the alternate training site for the series finale with the Diamondbacks.

Waiting to welcome the 34-year-old Espino back to the big leagues was the Diamondbacks’ Josh Rojas, who sent a leadoff home run flying out of Nationals Park.

But beyond that early blast and a long ball in the fourth inning, Espino held his own during his 4 1/3 innings as an emergency starter. Instead, the issues facing Washington on Sunday were unrelated to the team’s spot starter.

With a leaky bullpen and a lineup that struggled to produce against left-hander Madison Bumgarner and the Arizona relief arms that followed, the Nationals dropped the final game of a four-game set with the Diamondbacks, 5-2.

The Nationals split the four-game series after winning on Friday and Saturday and losing on Thursday.

“If pitchers can keep us in the ballgame, that’s all I want,” said Trea Turner, who launched two solo shots for the Nationals. “He gave us a chance to win today. He gave up two solo homers. … That’s going to happen. Those mistakes are going to happen. And he bounced right back and he pitched really well for us.”

Espino was in this position because Strasburg was added to the 10-day injured list Sunday morning, a result of shoulder discomfort during a bullpen session a few days earlier. An MRI revealed “some inflammation,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. And when it comes to Strasburg, Washington isn’t willing to take chances.

There’s no timetable for Strasburg’s return, making him one of several absentees on the pitching staff. Luis Avilan suffered a torn UCL in his elbow, and Wander Suero headed to the 10-day injured list with a left oblique strain. Plus, Will Harris and Jon Lester remain at the alternate training site, ramping up ahead of potential returns later this month.

“When two guys go down like that in the midst of a day,” Martinez said of Strasburg and Suero, “it’s kind of tough. But you gotta play that game. You know that help is on the way.”

So there was Espino on the bump to begin Sunday’s contest, and his sixth pitch quickly left the yard off Rojas’ bat. Carson Kelly added a long ball in the fourth, negating Turner’s third-inning solo shot to give Arizona the lead again.

But beyond those blasts, Espino worked around the few baserunners he allowed — and he received a defensive assist from Victor Robles to avoid a runner in scoring position in the third inning. Asdrubal Cabrera launched a 396-foot bomb off the center field fence, but Robles read the bounce to perfection and sent a laser from the wall to second base, nabbing Cabrera before he could slide in safely.

Martinez pulled Espino after 75 pitches, scattering five hits across 4 1/3 frames while walking one and striking out three.

“The slider was okay. The curveball was all right,” Espino said. “I think was struggling a little bit with them. That’s why I threw a little extra fastballs in there. But I really trust all my pitches and hopefully everything goes back to the way I feel every other day.”

The Diamondbacks added onto their lead in the seventh, eighth and ninth, pushing the contest out of reach against a lineup that produced hard contact but couldn’t turn those into runs.

Austin Voth was one strike away from escaping with a scoreless seventh inning, but he just missed with a fastball to issue a two-out walk to Rojas. Then Pavin Smith knocked an RBI double into the left-field corner, scoring Rojas from first.

And Ryne Harper, who was called up Sunday to replace Suero, quickly got into trouble in the eighth. David Peralta doubled and advanced to third on a passed ball before Eduardo Escobar drove him in with a sacrifice fly.

Arizona tacked on another off Kyle McGowin in the ninth — the reliever called up to replace Avilan. With two on, catcher Yan Gomes attempted a back pick to first base. But his throw wound up in right field, bringing home another run.

Those add-ons rendered Espino’s serviceable start inconsequential in the outcome, a necessary 4 1/3 innings that the bullpen and lack of hitting couldn’t support. But to Espino, earning the fourth start of his major league career matters more than the score.

“This is something that I always dream of,” Espino said. “Every year, this is what I’m doing. I’m fighting, doing everything I can to get an opportunity. And when they told me, I got very excited.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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