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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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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

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USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

ST. LOUIS -- Koda Glover rewarded his manager's faith.

Bryce Harper had three hits and drove in three runs, Glover earned the save in the first opportunity since Ryan Madson was placed on the disabled list, and the Washington Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night.

The Nationals won for just the third time in their last 10 games and snapped the Cardinals' season-high, eight-game winning streak.

"We needed a win today," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "Get on that plane, have a nice happy flight and come back tomorrow and be at home and be ready."

Tanner Roark (8-12) gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings.

A beleaguered bullpen that had blown two leads to start the losing streak took care of the rest. Justin Miller pitched two scoreless innings before Glover closed it out.

"There's been a lot of changes (in the bullpen)," Miller said. "It's unfortunate, a couple of injuries and stuff like that, but I don't really look at it as I've got the seventh or eighth or anything like that. I'm just going out there just trying to do my job."

Glover took the loss in the series opener on Monday, giving up a game-ending homer to Paul DeJong.

"The first game of the series didn't go as I would have liked for it to have went," Glover said. "So to get put back in that situation or even a better situation to get a save, I'm happy with that outcome."

Harper drove in the game's first run with a double in the first and knocked in two more with a bases-loaded single in the fourth to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.

A pair of errors helped the Nationals extend their lead to 5-1 in the fifth. St. Louis committed three errors in the game after committing just four total errors during the winning streak.

"A couple plays clearly we expect to make and will make and just didn't go our way for a little bit there," Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt said. "To the guys' credit they regrouped, settled down, and started playing back to the baseball they know they can play."

The Nationals had opportunities to pad the lead, leaving the bases loaded in the third and fifth while stranding nine runners in the first five innings.

"When you have an opportunity to put teams away you've got to do that," Martinez said. "Especially with how hot the Cardinals are playing right now. They're going to come back."

The Cardinals got within one in the sixth. After DeJong and Kolten Wong came up with back-to-back, two-out RBI hits, Harrison Bader hit a slow grounder to third. Anthony Rendon's throw to first got away from Ryan Zimmerman for an error, allowing Wong to score from second to cut the Nationals' lead to 5-4.

Just two of the four runs Luke Weaver (6-11) allowed in his 3 2/3 innings were earned. He gave up seven hits, including two to Roark, who scored both times.

Tyson Ross allowed one unearned run in 3 1/3 innings of relief.

Bader homered in the third and Matt Carpenter walked twice to extend his on-base streak to a career-high 34 games.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson will have an MRI on his sore right wrist on Friday. RHP Joe Ross (right elbow surgery) threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings at Class A Potomac on Thursday and is hoping for a September return.

Cardinals: RHP Carlos Martinez (right shoulder strain) will begin a rehab Friday at Double-A Springfield. RHP Adam Wainwright (right elbow inflammation) threw two scoreless innings Thursday night at High-A Palm Beach.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (15-5, 2.19 ERA) will take the mound as the Nationals return home for a three-game series Friday night against the Miami Marlins and RHP Dan Straily (4-5, 4.42 ERA). Scherzer is 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three starts this season against the Marlins.

Cardinals: RHP Jack Flaherty (6-6, 3.22 ERA) kicks off a three-game series Friday night as the Cardinals host the Milwaukee Brewers and RHP Freddy Peralta (5-3, 4.47 ERA). Flaherty struck out a career-high 13 batters in his last start against the Brewers on June 22.

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuña.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuña, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of... 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuña is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuña has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuña has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuña is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuña’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history is Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuña’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuña is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, though, voters love a narrative. If Acuña comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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