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With Nats needing spark, Espinosa steps up

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With Nats needing spark, Espinosa steps up

BALTIMORE — Even the most ardent supporters of Danny Espinosa probably would have admitted they didn’t see this coming, not to this extent. The All-Star break is a few hours away, and the Nationals right now are trying to figure out where they’d be without this guy.

“He’s kept us afloat a little bit,” manager Matt Williams said.

He did more than keep the Nationals afloat Saturday night. Espinosa’s 3-run homer in the top of the sixth gave his team the lead for good and made a 7-4 victory over the Orioles possible. Perhaps more remarkable is the fact these kind of events no longer are that surprising from a player who entered the season with very little expected of him but now has morphed into a major contributor on a first-place club.

“One of the best second basemen in the league right now,” said Bryce Harper, whose laser of a home run led off the sixth and set the Nationals’ game-winning rally in motion.

Harper’s not exaggerating when he says that. Espinosa has now hit 10 homers this season, tops among all NL second basemen. Only the now-injured Dee Gordon rates better than him in defensive metrics. Only Gordon and the Giants’ Joe Panik boast a higher WAR at the position.

And neither of those guys entered the season without being assured of a job. Or being asked to give up switch-hitting after a lifetime spent trying to swing from both sides of the plate.

Espinosa has put that storyline to rest with a remarkable turnaround as a left-handed batter this season. He’s still only hitting a modest .244 left-handed but with a .323 on-base percentage and .760 OPS that is a full 257 points better than the combined mark he posted the last two years as one of the least-productive hitters in baseball.

Perhaps the two biggest keys to Espinosa’s turnaround? The first is mechanical: He is keeping his head still with more regularity, allowing him to see the ball better and make more solid contact. The second is psychological: He keeps reminding himself when he steps to the plate not to think about home runs.

Which is exactly what he did during his key at-bat Saturday night. When Miguel Gonzalez threw him an 0-1 changeup over the plate, Espinosa simply made good contact with a controlled swing, then watched the ball sail over the right-field fence and onto the Camden Yards flag court.

“I was telling myself: Just don’t try to do too much. Just get a good pitch to hit,” he said. “Try to get a base hit, not try to do too much. It turned into something a lot better than a single.”

Espinosa’s offensive contributions have been most surprising this season, but his defensive contributions — while expected — have been no less significant. He has bounced around the field for the first time in his career, making his MLB debuts at third base, first base and left field and playing five different positions in total.

“He’s played all over the diamond, done everything we’ve asked him to do, and then some,” Williams said. “It says something about his character.”

Espinosa’s most-sparkling play Saturday came in the field, at second base, when Adam Jones scorched a ball back up the middle in the bottom of the third that registered 101 mph off the bat.

“The one that almost hit my face?” right-hander Jordan Zimmermann said with a laugh. “I was just trying to get out of the way, and all of a sudden I look, and there he is.”

Indeed, Espinosa (who was shaded up the middle) made a nifty, backhand stab at Jones’ rocket, then flipped to Ian Desmond, who had to make a difficult turn at second base to complete one of the Nationals’ best 4-6-3 double plays of the year.

“Part of it is positioning, being shaded up the middle a little more,” Espinosa said. “For the most part, I probably wouldn’t be shaded that far up the middle. But just right there on the short-hop, just trying to make sure of an out. Keep the ball in the infield and make sure of an out there. And we were able to get two.”

Just one of countless things Espinosa has done this season to help the Nationals, a development few could have seen coming.

“Being able to contribute every single day,” he said, “it’s been a lot of fun.”

MORE: Nats 7, Orioles 4: Homers, bullpen deliver big win

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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

WASHINGTON --  Progressively, the lines of desperation and declined price will have to intersect.

At least it would seem. Craig Kimbrel’s demands reportedly are receding during his extended unemployment. The needs of contenders in the National League East’s rock fight continue to increase day by day. The sides should be on a path to merge. Right?

Take this week. 

Atlanta announced closer Arodys Vizcaino underwent right shoulder surgery. He’s out for the season. This the day after his would-be replacement, A.J. Minter, gave up three earned runs in ⅔ of an inning. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos acknowledged he heard the chants from Braves fans Tuesday night demanding he sign Kimbrel.

Philadelphia placed reliever David Robertson on the 10-day injured list because of a flexor strain (initially labeled elbow soreness). It used Hector Neris to close Wednesday afternoon. He entered with two runners on base. Neris struck out the first batter, gave up a soft single, hit Wilson Ramos to load the bases, then struck Keon Broxton to end the game. That’s an interesting path to the end.

The Mets are living similar to the Nationals. They have a closer -- Edwin Diaz -- who can be relied on. It’s getting to him which has been such a challenge. Seth Lugo (5.06 ERA), Jeurys Familia (6.48) and Robert Gsellman (3.48) are often dispatched to drag New York to the ninth inning.

All five members of the National League East are in the bottom half of bullpen ERA entering play Friday. Philadelphia is 15th, Atlanta is 22nd, Miami is 24th, New York is 27th and Washington remains last by a wide margin -- almost a run-and-a-half worse than 29th-ranked Baltimore.

The Nationals’ bullpen toiling around with the have nots is endangering the team’s season as a whole, the $190 million payroll investment, the demands of the Lerner family to be better than first-round playoff exits. But, few paths are available to fix it without relinquishing a commodity -- whether human or financial.

Multiple reports claim Kimbrel’s asking price has come down in both years and cash. It may never reach a point of intersection with the Nationals if team ownership remains steadfast against surpassing the competitive balance tax threshold for the third consecutive year. Passing the $206 million roster mark would result in a 50 percent tax on every dollar spent from there on. 

Kimbrel would also cost the Nationals a compensation draft pick and international draft money because he declined a qualifying off from Boston. In all, four layers of cost exist around Kimbrel: salary, luxury tax, a draft pick and international money.

Financial stances can change when circumstances do. Though, the Nationals’ leverage with Kimbrel has evaporated. Owning the league’s worst bullpen is not a promising negotiation point for a team preferring to restrict this final portion of spending. Imagine their pitch: “We’re desperate for your services, but don’t want to spend much.” 

Whichever lagging bullpen signs Kimbrel still needs to subsist until he is ready. In Washington’s case, it continues to hunt for solutions ahead of a six-game road trip which starts Friday in Miami. Trevor Rosenthal’s lost early season, a better way to match up with left-handed hitters, help in the middle and a way to use closer Sean Doolittle less -- he’s on pace for 86 appearances -- are all on the docket. 

“Things haven’t gone the way we envisioned them coming out of camp,” Doolittle said this week. “Part of being a reliever -- you don’t get to this level without having taken some lumps; without having taken some punches. So guys, they might be in the jungle a little bit right now, but they know how to get through this. We’re working on it. Guys are talking to each other about things they can do, whether it’s pitch selection or mechanics or straight up execution to try to get things smoothed out. 

“We’re in it as a group. As a reliever, you can’t have an ego. You have to be ready for whatever the team needs, whatever the group needs and be ready to pick your teammate up.”

Doolittle’s words could have come from the leader of any NL East bullpen. Four contenders with the same problem populate the division. One big name looms. Day by day, the tussle for a fix and leverage goes on. 

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3 things to watch as the Nationals head to Miami for the first time in 2019

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3 things to watch as the Nationals head to Miami for the first time in 2019

The Washington Nationals wrapped up their series with the San Francisco Giants by winning the final two contests to take the series. Now their sights turn back toward their division and the Miami Marlins for a three-game tilt. Here are three things to watch for:

  1. Negotiations between Anthony Rendon and the Nationals opened back up this week in their six-game homestand. How will the Nats third baseman take the added noise? He was 3-for-11, both hits being singles, in the two games following. Before the Giants series started he was batting .400 with a 1.333 OPS.
  2. From the lead-off spot Adam Eaton has been doing damage to opposing pitchers in a short amount of time. While still early, he's at .319 on the year and getting base knocks in the opening innings. Five of his 22 hits are from the first at-bat of the game to go with three walks. Getting the young pitchers rattled early in Miami will allow them to jump out to early leads. 
  3. This year's Marlins are putting up the 2018 Baltimore Orioles numbers. Through 19 games they have four wins. Two in their past 15. They've scored the fewest runs (48) in MLB. They're bad and a couple of innings pitched against the Marlins might just be what the Nats bullpen needs.  

 The game broadcast will be at 7:10 PM ET on 106.7 the Fan and MASN2. 

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