Thursday, September 23, 2010

Worried about slump? Not Espinosa

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Danny Espinosa snapped out of a 5-for-51 slump with a triple and go-ahead homer.
As the outs piled up and the first slump of his big-league career moved into full swing, Danny Espinosa could have started panicking. He could have worried about getting benched. He could have started doubting whether he'd be able to hit pitching at this level again.

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.

Slump over.

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."


dale said...

I cringed when I read the part about the Nats picking up a veteran infielder. Will Riggleman feel obligated to give the veteran his 1/3 of the at bats like he did this season? If so, the best thing that Rizzo can do is not to pick up a veteran infielder--let Gonzalez be the relief man for that trio.

Nats fan in NJ said...

Dale - I couldn't agree more. At this point, kinda like what was done with Desmond this year, lets put Espinosa out there next year and see if he can handle it. The kid's glove is smooth so he is a tremendous asset defensively. Let him have his shot.

N. Cognito said...

You pick up a veteran infielder that knows his job is as a backup.
Beats selling Lady Kenmores.

CapPeterson said...

Do Kennedy and, more important, Rigs know that at his age Kennedy is a backup? I.e., no guaranteed # of ABs. Re-upping him would be fine in that case.

bgib said...

I miss Jamey Carroll.

JaneB said...

Oh Jamey Carroll! Such a hard charger but not bin a hot doggy way. Like Dale and Nats fan in NJ it made my stomach turn to read about them signing a middle infielder. I like the way the rest of you are thinking keep Kennedy to back him up, but AS back up.

On another note, it was interesting to me last night that, when the Astros went ahead, the vibe in the stadium wasn't deadly. Yet it has turned that direction in the past. Was it the win the night before? What made the difference? Whatever it was, it was real. We need more of THAT to get more curly W's.

And a veteran lights out pitcher signed. But UNTIL then...

Harper_ROY_2012 said...

@ Bgib - Ditto, Jamey was a great utility man.

As for Espinosa, despite his slump he has earned a spot at 2B for 2011, no need to bring in a veteran free agent, he is better than Desmond and he was handed the SS job basically sight unseen.

Anonymous said...

With 3/4 of a tremendous defensive infield, would the Nats be better off with an up and coming Mike Morse at first next year? Project Mike's offensive numbers over a full year and add in his defensive edge over Adam and the Nats could have a very good infield.

natsfan1a said...

Loved Jamey, and have followed his career since he left the team (as I have with other Nats). I'm also liking what Espinosa brings to the team.

Oh, and re. this:

"Beats selling Lady Kenmores."

I'd add, or working at Tire World.

320R2S15 said...

Jamey, good lord what a solid pro and the basdeges sold him for 400K....sounds like Stan might have had enough of this owner.

Knoxville Nat said...

What is Morse's "defensive edge" over Dunn? I would suggest that the there isn't enough of a sample to compare Morse to Dunn defensively at first base.

Doc said...

Me three, or four, on picking up a utility 2nd baseman. I wouldn't trust trust Riggleman with that kind of roster move.

Gonzo is more than sufficient. Kennedy was part of Riggleman's delusional substitution format. He's like a kid with two Lego kits.

2011 or bust!!!!!!!!!!

natsfan1a said...

Hey, kids, if you're going to the game today, don't forget that Figueroa really likes it when you cheer like a bunch of softball girls.

Example: Who likes softball girls? (clap-clap clap-clap-clap) We like softball girls! (clap-clap clap-clap-clap)


Section 222 said...

I second the sentiment that there is no need to sign a utility infielder or re-up AK. AG is a perfectly good backup for all three infielders, and even can play 1B if needed. He only has 148 ABs this year. I wouldn't mind seeing him get 250 filling in for Desi, Espi, and occassionally, Zim.

I also feel strongly that Espi should be given an opportunity to win the SS job in spring training. If he can learn to play 2B so can Desmond, and I am certain he would not make over 30 errors next year as our starting SS. Playing SS will allow him to take advantage of that rifle of an arm. Desmond has a great arm too, but his hands are not as sure.

Anonymous said...

"I also feel strongly that Espi should be given an opportunity to win the SS job in spring training. If he can learn to play 2B so can Desmond, and I am certain he would not make over 30 errors next year as our starting SS. Playing SS will allow him to take advantage of that rifle of an arm. Desmond has a great arm too, but his hands are not as sure."

True statement there. Riggleman's comment that "there's no chance" of a switch is close-minded at best....Espi was the starting SS as a Freshman @ Long Beach following in Tulo's shoes, and the team didn't skip a beat.

None of us know for sure, but Espi's needs an honest shot to lead the team in the SS position. His glove is solid, he's shown tremendous range, and all indications are that Espi has an even better arm than Desi (who clearly has a plus arm himself). Remember, this is the same kid who scouts have been forever saying will "never hit for power", and now stands at what...24 or 25 HR's on the season?!

Nothing against Desi, but Espinosa seems to have earned a shot at the SS position....unless of course, Riggleman is so in love with Desi he can't be impartial for the sake of the team...

Whatever the case is, looks like the Nat's are continuing to build a strong team!

Joe Seamhead said...

I like the Desmond/Espinosa combo the way it is. I really think that Danny makes Ian better. As to Michael Morris, I still hear people say that he's a bench player, he's not an everyday player, he's a defensive liability, etc.
I don't get how people are so quickly reaching any of these conclusions. All he's done is hit .300, has a great slugging percentage, basically has learned a new position in RF without being charged with one error. As a matter of fact he hasn't been charged with one error at any position since it was established that he wasn't a major league SS. I know that he isn't always the most graceful, or the fastest outfielder, but he has a good arm, makes few mistakes out there, and is, though somewhat streaky at the plate, a pretty solid hitter. If Dunn isn't re-signed I wouldn't think of Mike as being a horrible alternative at 1b, but I like him in right, but if the grand projection of Harper being up here in a year or two then Morse won't be in right for long anyway.. I really like Dunn,seems to be a great guy, but I don't think that the Nats will ever be a winning team with him at first.

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