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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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What to make of the Strasburg-Scherzer shouting match in the Nationals' dugout

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USA Today Sports

What to make of the Strasburg-Scherzer shouting match in the Nationals' dugout

Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer had a heated exchange in the Nationals dugout Friday night.

It was another not-so-great moment in an otherwise unspectacular season for the Nats so far.

Things like this often appear worse than they are based on what we can see, not hear, on television. In any case, it has fans and pundits talking about a perceived off-the-field issue instead of the actual game. There's nothing "good" about this, but there are important factors that are "bad" and ones that are "not bad."

Davey Martinez, Strasburg and Scherzer already said this has been settled and wasn't a big deal in the first place, but for a manager who's already faced some scrutiny this year for how he manages his pitchers, having two of them go at it in the dugout isn't ideal.

It also doesn't present the best optics for a team that came out of the All-Star Break 5.5 games back of the division-leading Philadelphia Phillies. The Nationals need to build some momentum heading into the dog days of summer, and after a lackluster first half, this isn't how anybody would want to start the second half.

This was also Strasburg's first start back from a month-long stint on the disabled list. Ryan Zimmerman just rejoined the club as well. Things are shaping up to make for a solid second-half run, but all this does is detract from that.

The Nationals also just hosted the first All-Star Game in Washington since 1969. Having something like this happen in the dugout where everybody can see it takes away from some of that good publicity.

But there are also positives, or at least non-negatives, to take from this. Scherzer has always been ultracompetitive, and as the best pitcher on the staff, he needs to harness that into leadership. With Strasburg coming off a rough inning, Scherzer may have thought he needed a little tough love from a veteran. There's nothing wrong with that. Strasburg, to his credit, has never been one to focus too much on himself, so if there's anyone who can take something like this constructively, it'd be him.

This isn't Jonathan Paplebon fighting Bryce Harper for not running out a pop fly the day after the Nats were eliminated from playoff contention. These are two veteran guys who play the same position who are both competitive and want to win. It's akin to an older brother pushing his younger brother to do better. Strasburg even hinted at the family aspect after the game.

In the end, there's really nothing to see here. Frustration is part of the game. Talking it out is a part of remedying the frustration.

What really matters is tracking down the Braves and the Phillies. The Nationals can get started on that Sunday in the second game of a rain-shortened two-game series against the Braves.

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Saturday's Nationals game rained out, to be postponed

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Saturday's Nationals game rained out, to be postponed

Following a dicey matchup between the Nats and Braves Friday night which featured a heated argument between Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals are getting a much-needed opportunity to regroup.

The Washington Nationals' official Twitter account announced that Saturday evening's matchup will be postponed due to inclement weather just after 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon.

The Nationals had planned to host "JMU Night" at the ballpark as a part of their "College Day" series, and due to more forecasted inclement weather Sunday, the Nationals decided to call the game off sooner rather than later.

The Nationals have yet to announce when the game will be made up.

If Sunday's game is played as scheduled, Max Scherzer will start.

This post will be updated when more information regarding a makeup date has been announced.

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