- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2021

When Paolo Espino walked off the mound for the final time Wednesday, the 34-year-old accomplished something that had eluded him to that point in his career.

In his 29 big league appearances — 17 for the Washington Nationals, six for the Texas Rangers and six more for the Milwaukee Brewers — Espino had never completed five innings. But when the Nationals needed him in Wednesday’s 3-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Espino delivered the best outing of his career.

Across 53 pitches, Espino allowed three hits, struck out two batters, walked none and allowed no runs. He received handshakes and pats on the back up and down the dugout when he left the mound following the fifth inning, and Espino earned his first major league win — only 15 years after he was selected in the 10th round of the 2006 MLB draft.

“It definitely took a lot longer than I was hoping, or my family was hoping, or everybody was hoping,” Espino said. “But, I mean, it was all worth it. I’m just happy that it finally came through.”

Once closer Brad Hand finished off the series sweep over the Pirates, Nationals manager Dave Martinez called on Espino one final time. Instead of pitching, he wanted the veteran to speak to the team, acknowledging his perseverance across 342 minor league games to finally reach this pinnacle.

“It’s a testament to how hard he’s worked,” Martinez said, “put the time in.”

He put the time in, and then some.

When Espino was called up in April to join the Nationals, he thought it would be for just one spot start before he headed back to the minors. But he has hung around since then, appearing 13 times out of the bullpen before putting together two of his best performances in consecutive showings.

Washington has won six of its last eight games through performances like Wednesday’s — strong starting pitching efforts from unlikely sources. Over the last seven games, Nationals starters have combined to post a 0.75 ERA — and in those starts were spot appearances from Espino and Jefry Rodriguez. Washington has made do without Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg of late, the team’s pitchers keeping an often-anemic offense in the game.

Espino entered in an emergency capacity Friday, replacing Scherzer just 12 pitches into the contest because of groin tightness. Besides a solo home run — the lone blemish of a 1-0 loss — Espino’s 3 1/3 innings in relief were strong.

And he continued that work Wednesday, appearing again in place of Scherzer, who landed on the 10-day injured list this week. Espino doesn’t blow any batters away — his fastball topped out at 90 mph, and he hit that mark just four times — but his mix of four-seamers and curveballs proved effective against one of the worst lineups in the majors.

“They were actually very aggressive today, and I was locating well,” Espino said. “So they were putting the ball in play quick, and I was getting outs quick, so that’s probably the main reason why, one, I didn’t throw many pitches, and two, I was able to go deep.”

Espino retired the first eight batters he faced, then gave up a double to opposing pitcher Chase De Jong in the third inning, who split the left-center field gap when Victor Robles’ aggressive route came up short. But Espino worked around that double, as well as a one-out two-bagger Bryan Reynolds hit in the fourth.

Reynolds might’ve scored on Gregory Polanco’s ensuing single, but Pirates third base coach Joey Cora held Reynolds when he saw Robles come up throwing in center, although Robles’ toss was well up the third-base line. Espino got out of trouble, stranding two in scoring position when he struck out Phillip Evans and forced Ben Gamel to ground out.

That was the extent of Espino’s difficulties, though, setting himself up for the first win of his career on an efficient display in which 39 of his 53 pitches were strikes.

“He works hard, he did a great job today,” Hand said. “We didn’t know how many innings he was going to be able to give us today, and he was able to give us five, so that was huge. I’m very happy for him, and hopefully there’s many more for him to come.”

Espino’s performance continues a trend of strong starts from Washington’s arms, with his five scoreless innings backing Yan Gomes’ solo homer in the second inning. Washington had ample opportunities to add on, but as the team has frequently this season, they came up empty in those moments.

The Nationals loaded the bases in the fourth, only to have Jordy Mercer strike out and Robles pop out. Then they loaded the bases again in the sixth, just to have Robles hit a fly ball too shallow to score Bell from third before Zimmerman flew out to end the frame.

Those situations have been particularly taxing for Washington this season. Gomes seemed to break that trend Tuesday with his grand slam, but the Nationals are hitting .158 with the bases juiced, and they’ve hit just one sacrifice fly in their 63 at-bats — missing the kind of contact that plates runs, even if not in bunches.

“Especially with less than two outs, just move the baseball,” Martinez said. “Anything can happen, we can score a run in a lot of different ways. It didn’t happen tonight.”

But Josh Bell would finally apply the big swing necessary, clubbing a two-run home run in the seventh to give Washington some breathing room. And while Kyle Finnegan allowed one run to score, Hand entered for a five-out save, preserving Espino’s first big league win at the end of a series sweep of the Pirates.

“I’m so happy that I’m still here,” Espino said. “I just want to help the team as much as I can, and hopefully we go all the way.”

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

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