Marty Niland: Espinosa's play should win fans' hearts as well as games

For those who are afraid the Nationals' 2014 season will be a sad repeat of 2013, take a good look at last weekend's four-game split with the St. Lois Cardinals.

The knock on the Nats has been that they can rack up cheap wins at the expense of the Marlins and Mets, but come up up empty against teams they may ultimately have to contend with in the postseason, like the Braves and Cardinals.

A week ago, they seemed to prove their critics right, dropping three games in Atlanta, showing the same choking tendencies they've been exhibiting since their loss to St. Louis in the 2012 National League Division Series. But back at home this week against the Cardinals, they got off the mat after two tough losses to win games they had every chance to lose.

At the forefront in almost every contest was a man the Nationals could have given up on on a year ago, Danny Espinosa. Much has been made of manager Matt Williams' public criticism of Bryce Harper on Saturday, and how it would affect the young star. But a year ago, it was Espinosa who was the subject to an even more serious public shaming. In the middle of a prolonged hitting slump, Espinosa lost his starting job at second base and was sent to the minors after the team revealed he had been trying to play through injuries. His season at Triple-A Syracuse was miserable: .216/.280/.286 with a pair of homers.

Espinosa was disliked by fans, drawing derision on Nats message boards from serious posters and trolls alike. He was reported to be trade bait, and with Anthony Rendon swinging a hot bat, and youngsters with seemingly more upside coming through the organization, general manager Mike Rizzo could have given in to the offers. Rizzo resisted, however, and now the team is all the better for it. Pressed into service when the popular Ryan Zimmerman broke his thumb, Espinosa has made the most of his second chance. All he has done since becoming a regular starter on April 11 is go 10-for-30, scoring five runs and driving in three.

He came up big all weekend against the Cardinals, playing a pivotal role in both wins. In Friday night's 3-1 victory, he hustled his way on base on Matt Carpenter's fielding error and then came around from second to score an insurance run on Yadier Molina's throwing error after Michael Wacha's wild pitch. On Sunday, he capped a 3-for-4 afternoon with a single and raced home with the winning run on Denard's Span's sacrifice fly.

Even in Saturday's loss, he helped the Nats dig out of an early 3-0 hole with his first homer of the season.
Espinosa has been a steady presence on a club that still has issues to work out with its pitching staff and other defensive positions. Without his clutch bat and stellar defense, the Nats could be in serious trouble at this stage of the season. Instead, they have conquered some of the demons that have plagued them since October 2012 and are still in the thick of the NL East race.

Nats fans owe Rizzo and the organization a debt of gratitude for not giving up on such a valuable member of the team.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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.

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