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Espinosa delivers in big spot

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Espinosa delivers in big spot

Every ballplayer has his own reaction when an opponent intentionally walks the batter in front of him. Some gear up even more than they normally would. Some don't treat it any differently than any other at-bat.

Danny Espinosa? He gets mad.

"I don't gear up, but I definitely take it personally in the sense that I want to get 'em," he said. "I want to make 'em pay for what they're doing."

Boy, did Espinosa make them pay for it Thursday night. After watching the Rays intentionally walk Adam LaRoche with two outs in the sixth inning of a tie game, the struggling Nationals second baseman stepped into the left-handed batter's box and delivered perhaps his biggest hit of the season: a two-run double that propelled his team to a 5-2 win and another series victory over a tough AL East opponent.

"I know Danny's character enough to know that in that situation he's going to rise up and get the job done," teammate Ian Desmond said.

Desmond may have sensed it, but you couldn't blame the 29,551 in attendance at Nationals Park had they anticipated disaster instead of elation at that moment.

Espinosa's track record from the left side of the plate -- he was hitting .188 this season entering the game, versus .365 from the right side -- certainly wouldn't suggest a favorable matchup for him against Tampa Bay reliever Joel Peralta.

Those who have watched Espinosa closely in recent weeks, though, have seen improvement.

"I thought he's been swinging the bat, really, pretty good from the left side," manager Davey Johnson said. "He's made a few adjustments to where he feels like he's getting to the ball a little quicker. Even when he's bad, he's still a very dangerous hitter. He seems to shine in tough situations."

The Nationals needed Espinosa to come through in a particularly tough spot Thursday in a game that featured several key moments.

The evening nearly began in disastrous fashion for starter Gio Gonzalez, who went to a three-ball count on five of the first six batters he faced and then fell behind 2-0 to Carlos Pena with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the second. But a quick mound visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty, plus some calming gestures from Desmond (who made some exaggerated deep breath motions to his teammate), set Gonzalez back on track. He struck out Pena, the start of a stretch in which he retired 10 of 11 batters.

"When you've got, in my opinion, a leader like that who can go out there and take some deep breaths for you and slow your game down for you, it helps out a lot," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez also needed a big strikeout of pinch-hitter Elliot Johnson to end the sixth, stranding the potential go-ahead run in scoring position. Then he turned things over to his bullpen, which gave Johnson a few heart palpitations during a tense top of the seventh.

"That was a good game," Johnson said, "except for the seventh inning where everybody I brought in it seemed couldn't find the plate."

No, they couldn't. Craig Stammen issued a leadoff walk to Desmond Jennings, then walked Ben Zobrist with two outs to prolong the inning. Left-hander Michael Gonzalez entered to face Hideki Matsui and issued a free pass of his own, loading the bases.

So in came Ryan Mattheus, knowing well the situation at hand against Will Rhymes.

"I had to throw him a strike," Mattheus said. "Sure enough, I throw him two balls right off the bat."

The right-hander did quickly right his ship, though, and with the count full blew a 92 mph fastball past Rhymes to end the inning.

"That's our job: To go out there and leave those runners that are inherited out there stranded," Mattheus said. "It's not so much about your ERA, it's about what you leave out there for other guys as a reliever. That was a big deal."

It was, as were the 1-2-3 innings pitched by bullpen mates Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard to close out this victory.

None of it, however, would have been possible without Espinosa's clutch hit, perhaps his biggest hit of the season.

It's been a tough road for Espinosa, who hasn't boasted a batting average higher than .235 since April 7. Through it all, he's had the unwavering support of his manager.

"Sometimes it just takes a little time, patience," Johnson said. "I know he has the talent and the ability. I just try not to put too much pressure on him, whether from you or me or anybody else. Everybody that ever sees him play realizes what kind of talent he is."

And on this night, Espinosa rewarded his manager for that patience.

"I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't have stuck with me that long," he said. "So it feels awesome to know that Davey's got my back."

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It's Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

It's Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

So if you have not heard, Bryce Harper is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018 season.

All off-season talking heads, baseball aficionados, radio hosts, etc. were speculating on where the outfielder’s destination will be next year.

And we are still a year away from it actually happening.

RELATED: VEGAS SETS OVER/UNDERS FOR 2018 MLB SEASON

Reporting to spring training on Monday, Harper did not waste any time telling the media how his press conferences were going to play out this season.

“If guys do [ask], or talk anything about that, I will be walking right out the door.”

Entering his seventh season with the Washington Nationals, the 25-year-old is coming off the second-best season, statistically, of his career. The 2015 NL MVP has hit .285 in his career, with 150 home runs and 421 RBIs. Unquestionably he is the face of the Nationals’ organization, if not, the best player in the team’s history.

If he does end the season without a contract extension, he will join Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Barry Bonds as the top sought out free agents in MLB history.

One thing is for certain in terms of Harper’s free agency; Harper has given no inclination on where his landing spot will be.  The top three cities are of course his favorite childhood team, the New York Yankees; joining with one of his closest friends with the Chicago Cubs; or just staying with Washington.

Wherever he does land, it does appear that it will be the largest contract given to a free agent ever.

As for now we just wait and direct any of your calls to his agent Scott Boras.

READ ALSO: NATIONALS FULL SPRING TRAINING SCHEDULE

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Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

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Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

Now that pitchers and catchers have reported, the next step in our long journey to Opening Day is the spring training games themselves. Not every game is televised, so get ready to follow along with your favorite beat writer's Twitter account for all your updates.

Even without getting to watch the games, it'll still be exciting to once again check box scores in the morning to see if Bryce Harper homered again, or if Max Scherzer is perfect through 4 innings (spoiler: both of these will happen).

This year's spring training will be especially interesting, considering how many big-name players will be signing contracts in the next few weeks. The Nats are always willing to make a big splash, and even beyond the available free agents, have been linked to impact players like J.T. Realmuto in trade rumors.

Typically, the excitement of adding a new piece to the roster has to be reignited after a long winter off, but this season, those additions will be happening while camp is already underway.

It's going to be a hectic few weeks as teams prepare for their seasons, so bookmark this page to check on the Nationals spring training schedule over the next few weeks as the team finally takes the field in 2018.

Nationals 2018 Spring Training Schedule

Friday, Feb. 23 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Saturday, Feb. 24 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Feb. 25 - Braves at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Feb. 26 - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Feb. 27 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Feb. 28 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 1 (SS) - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 2 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Saturday, Mar. 3 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Tigers at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Monday, Mar. 5 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 6 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Wednesday, Mar. 7 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 8 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 10 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 11 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Mar. 12 - Nationals at Tigers, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 13 (SS) - Mets at Nationals, 7:05 pm (MLBN) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 15 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 16 (SS) - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Saturday, Mar. 17 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 18 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Monday, Mar. 19 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 20 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Mar. 21 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (ESPN2) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 22 - Nationals at Mets, 6:10 pm
Friday, Mar. 23 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 6:05 pm (MASN)
Friday, Mar. 23 - Nationals at Marlins, 7:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 24 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 25 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 27 (at Nationals Park) - Twins at Nationals, 4:05 pm