Danny Espinosa had been down this path before, sporting a sub-.200 batting average and hearing calls from various directions for someone else to take his job. And his response - sulking, overworking, overthinking - all too often only made things worse.
This time around, when he found himself hitting .199 on June 1 and hearing the calls for the Nationals to summon top prospect Trea Turner to replace him at shortstop, Espinosa fought the temptation and made a tough choice which wound up paying off.
“It’s never easy,” he said. “But in the past, I would make a ton of changes, try to make mechanical changes. Last year and this year, I just tried to stay with my swing and stay with what I was doing, as far as my work and my approach every day.”
Look at the end result. Thanks to the best single-game performance of his career - two homers, seven RBIs in the Nationals’ 13-4 thumping of the Reds tonight - Espinosa capped a brilliant month that might well have saved his job.
Over the last 30 days, Espinosa has hit .309. He has hit nine homers. He has driven in 21 runs. He has produced an OPS of 1.122.
Now, for comparison’s sake ... Bryce Harper won NL Player of the Month in April with a 1.121 OPS, and Daniel Murphy won NL Player of the Month in May with a 1.096 OPS. Espinosa just outperformed both teammates in June.
“Here he comes,” left-hander Gio Gonzalez said. “He’s coming with vengeance now. He’s just a guy (that’s) a force to be reckoned with right now. You can see it in his swing, you can see his approach in the batter’s box. He just looks like a stone-cold killer up there.”
That the Nationals have been able to get that kind of production out of their No. 8 hitter speaks volumes about both Espinosa’s stunning resurgence and the depth of manager Dusty Baker’s lineup when everyone’s going well. Who wouldn’t take an eighth-place hitter with 15 homers and 41 RBIs?
“We needed it,” Baker said. “Came right on time for us. I’m happy for him.”
Espinosa’s month-ending explosion came in rapid fire during tonight’s blowout win. He stepped to the plate in the bottom of the third with the bases loaded and the Nationals leading 4-1, then crushed a 2-2 pitch from Reds left-hander Brandon Finnegan over the bullpen in left-center.
The crowd of 29,386 roared as Espinosa circled the bases following his second career grand slam and kept roaring until he came back up the dugout steps to acknowledge the curtain call.
“Not trying to hit a home run right there,” he said. “Just trying to get a run in right there. Bases loaded, trying to make sure we get one run in right there.”
Only 27 minutes later, Espinosa stepped to the plate in the bottom of the fourth, this time with two men on base and right-hander Josh Smith on the mound for Cincinnati. And he again tagged the ball deep to left-center, this time for a three-run shot that produced another curtain call from a crowd thrilled to have seen the first player in Nationals history to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game.
“I was just happy,” he said. “I had never done that in the big leagues, as far as hitting a home run from each side. So I was pretty happy.”
With seven RBIs already to his name after only four innings, Espinosa had a chance to match or perhaps even break the all-time record for RBIs in a game by a Washington major leaguer. The Senators’ Mike Epstein (in 1970) and the Nationals’ Josh Willingham (in 2009) each drove in eight in their signature individual performances.
But reliever Michael Lorenzen made a nice play on Espinosa’s comebacker to the mound leading off the seventh. And then Espinosa was left stranded in the on-deck circle in the eighth when Chris Heisey grounded out with two on and two out.
Not that anyone was too upset by night’s end about a solo performance like this. Certainly when it came from a player admired by teammates for his perseverance through some awfully tough times in recent seasons.
“I’ve known Danny for a while,” said Ryan Zimmerman, Espinosa’s teammate since Sept. 2010. “I’ve known what kind of player he is. He’s been through a lot and had a lot of different roles, and he’s just doing what he can every time he gets a chance. Hitting in the 8-hole is not an easy place to hit. He’s been obviously huge for the team this year.”