During the dark days of 2009, with the Nationals mired in first place in the Bryce Harper draft sweepstakes, I looked to the minor leagues for solace.
I decided to attend a Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) trip to Woodbridge, Va., to watch the Single-A Potomac Nationals, at that time the defending Carolina League champions. Excitement ran high as recent draftees, including Drew Storen, had just joined the team. Seeing potential future stars numbed the pain I felt watching the big league club.
Until the top of the ninth inning, the game itself was a disappointment. The P-Nats trailed in the dull, low-scoring affair. The baby Nationals hitters displayed the same impatience as their counterparts in the show. They refused to walk. They flailed at sliders far outside the strike zone.
Then, after most of the crowd had departed, magic. An opposing batter smashed a hard grounder up the middle. As the ball skittered toward center field, shortstop Danny Espinosa, a third-round draft choice in 2008 from California State University Long Beach - “Shortstop U,” alma mater of Troy Tulowitski and Evan Longoria - appeared.
Espinosa reached down and snatched the ball from the edge of the outfield grass. I expected the youngster to hold onto the ball, saving a throw with no possible chance for success. When Espinosa reached the ball, the batter was no more than three strides from first base.
But he did make a throw, an incredible laser beam that shot across the infield in a blur and cracked into the first baseman’s glove, a clear beat ahead of the runner. The umpire made the emphatic call, “Out!”
For a moment, the crowd of a few hundred folks fell silent. Did that really just happen? Then, cheers rose, surprisingly long and loud for a meaningless minor league game. Why not roar? We had just seen the impossible.
A few innings earlier, I had remarked to the guy sitting next to me, “No one on this team impresses me so far.”
After Espinosa’s play he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Guess we better keep an eye on that kid, huh?”
I took his words to heart. Ever since that stunning play, I’ve kept my eye on Espinosa’s progress - from his ascent through the Washington farm system to his debut on Sept. 1, 2010 in Florida against the Marlins.
Espinosa truly captured fans’ attention during his home debut on Sept. 6, 2010. He went 4-for-5 with two home runs and six RBIs in the Nationals’ 13-3 drubbing of the New York Mets. After seasons of middle infield mediocrity, I knew Washington had found their second baseman, or shortstop, of the future.
Sixteen days later, two friends and I traveled to Nationals Park to watch a late-season game against the Houston Astros. Espinosa was in the starting lineup at second base. While we took in the game on a gorgeous fall night, one friend kept saying, “Guys, the future of the Nats is so bright, I gotta wear shades,” riffing on the Huey Lewis tune.
“C’mon,” we countered, “what evidence do you have for saying that?”
He rattled off the examples - Strasburg’s successful Tommy John surgery and pending return in late 2011, Jordan Zimmermann’s already successful return, the trade for Wilson Ramos, the impending selection of Harper, the steady excellence of Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Rizzo’s baseball savvy and ample room for payroll growth.
In the middle of our debate, Espinosa came up to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning with a runner on base and one out. In the top of the seventh, Washington surrendered a 2-1 lead and now trailed 3-2. My friend gestured to the batter’s box, “and this guy right here, Danny Espinosa.”
A few pitches later, Espinosa blasted Jeff Fulchino’s fastball over the right-center field wall, the decisive blow in the Nationals’ 4-3 victory.
Since that moment, Espinosa became my favorite National. I’ve followed his ups - the Rookie of the Year-worthy first half of 2011 - and downs - the prolonged second-half slump that stretched well into this season as his strikeouts mounted. I rejoiced when he rediscovered his swing and played a stellar shortstop in Ian Desmond’s absence, helping to propel the Nats to their best baseball of the season.
Of the many pleasures the Nationals have given fans this year, the rise of Espinosa has been one to savor. Not yet through his second full season, further struggles are certain. He must adjust to playing second base again. He still strikes out too often. Like most of the club, he has never experienced a September pennant race. Nevertheless, he plays a major role in making the Nationals’ future - in 2012 and beyond - very bright, indeed.
Stephen Walker blogs about the Nationals at District on Deck and is the author of “A Whole New Ballgame: The 1969 Washington Senators” (Pocol Press, 2009). His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.