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.”