Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Danny Espinosa snapped out of a 5-for-51 slump with a triple and go-ahead homer.
That, however, would not be Espinosa's style. He didn't follow in the footsteps of Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria at Long Beach State by doubting himself. He didn't cruise through four levels of the Nationals' farm system in 2 1/2 years by questioning his abilities. And now that he's reached the majors, he's not going to suddenly start worrying about a little slump.
"It was easy for me to think that I was going to get through this," he said. "I knew I wasn't going to stay in this. It's not me. I know I can play here, and I have to have the confidence that I know I can play here and know I was going to come out of this."
Espinosa said this inside the Nats' clubhouse some 30 minutes after the conclusion of a 4-3 victory over the Astros that wouldn't have been possible without his contributions.
When he stepped to the plate in the third inning, he was stuck in a 5-for-51 funk. Then he tripled off the fence in center field and wound up scoring the Nationals' first run. And when he stepped to the plate again in the seventh, his team trailing by a run after giving up the lead in the top of the inning, Espinosa calmly drilled a two-run homer off the top of the fence in right-center. That proved to be the game-winner.
Espinosa knew it would only be a matter of time before he broke through again. He may not have gone on another five-game binge like he did to open his career (9-for-16, three homers, 10 RBI) but he wouldn't sustain a .098 batting average for any length of time, either.
If anything, the 23-year-old infielder entered tonight's game with increased confidence after striking the ball well a couple of times Tuesday despite not having anything to show for it.
Talking to his father, Dan, on the phone, Espinosa predicted a breakthrough.
"I said it was the first time in about a week and a half that I've felt comfortable up there," he recalled. "I said, 'I'm right there. I know I'm right there. I can feel it.'"
Plenty of rookies mired in a slump like that would start pressing, start trying too hard to snap out of it. Espinosa, though, showed no signs of that in recent days.
"No, I haven't seen it," Jim Riggleman said. "He's played a couple years in the minor leagues. He played at a big-time collegiate program. He's faced good competition in summer leagues and the minor leagues, Double-A, Triple-A pretty quick. And he's had times down there where they got him out. He knows he has to come to the park the next day and get it going. He's handled everything very well."
Forget about the numbers he's posted at the plate, and forget about the spectacular plays he's made in the field (difficult as it is to do that). Perhaps the most impressive thing Espinosa has done in his three weeks as a big leaguer is to simply look like he belongs here.
That's no small feat. Plenty of prospects show up in September and appear spooked by the bright lights. Espinosa hasn't been fazed one bit. Much like Ian Desmond one year ago, he stepped into a major-league clubhouse for the first time and blended right in.
Don't confuse comfort, though, with a lack of nerves. Espinosa gets plenty of butterflies in his stomach.
"I get nervous before every game," he said. "It's just how it always is. It's good. I've got to keep that. When that goes away, I shouldn't be playing."
He's put in plenty of extra hours at second base, learning the intricacies of a position he hadn't played regularly since high school. You wouldn't know it from watching him, because he's looked completely at ease on that side of the diamond, combining forces with Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman to give the Nationals one of the most-talented infield trios in baseball.
"The collection of athleticism there is impressive," said Tyler Clippard, who by the way picked up his team-leading 11th win tonight. "All the things they're capable of doing defensively on the baseball field is huge for us as a baseball team. And then their offensive abilities speak for themselves. It's going to be fun to see how they develop over the next couple years. It's going to be huge for this organization, for sure."
Three weeks remains too small a sample size to determine for sure if Espinosa is ready to be this team's everyday second baseman. The Nationals will almost certainly go out this winter and acquire a veteran infielder who can take over in case the kid falters, much as they did last winter in signing Adam Kennedy.
But the early indications certainly suggest Espinosa is close to, if not already big-league material.
Nights like this one only underscore that. But then, even when he was slumping, Espinosa still looked and acted the part.
"I'm having a great time," he said. "Even when I'm struggling, it's great. I have so much fun. I've always had fun, whether I was in the minors or here. I love playing baseball. This is the best part of my day."