Espinosa wows crowd, Nats with pair of plays at shortstop

JUPITER, Fla. - For all his offensive shortcomings - and there remain plenty - Danny Espinosa has long since established himself as an elite defensive infielder. The vast majority of the work he did to build that reputation has come at second base, but those who have followed the 28-year-old throughout his career know he has always fancied himself as a shortstop first.

With each passing day this spring, everyone else is understanding why that has been the case all along.

Given a chance to be the Nationals' starting shortstop for the first time in his career, Espinosa has excelled in the field. And he took matters to another level this afternoon at Roger Dean Stadium, making a pair of plays that left the crowd of 7,414 buzzing.

espinosa-grey-fielding-col-sidebar.jpg"I love it," he said of his return to shortstop following Ian Desmond's departure to Texas. "It's fun. It's exciting. I enjoy that side of the defense, being able to make those plays and take hits away. I really enjoy it."

Espinosa's play of the day - probably the play of the spring for the Nats - came on Tommy Pham's sharp grounder to the hole. He ranged far to his right to make a backhanded stab of the ball, then with his legs still moving toward the left field corner he jumped and threw across his body, hitting first baseman Ryan Zimmerman on the fly to get Pham by a step.

"If I were to exchange the ball cleanly, I thought I had a chance," Espinosa said. "It's just a reactionary play. You don't see guys going out there and practicing it. It's just reactionary trying to get the out."

"That's the first time he's really done something really spectacular," manager Dusty Baker said. "Everything else is kind of routine, but that was a spectacular play. That was one of the best plays. I didn't want him to throw the ball. I didn't think he had a chance: 'Oh, no!' and then 'Great play!'"

Espinosa's manager may not have thought he had a chance to make the play, but the guy on the mound who has seen him up-close the last 2 1/2 seasons knew better than to assume he couldn't.

"Anything with Espy," right-hander Tanner Roark said. "I think he's got a strong enough arm. That was definitely a great play. And then the knuckleball line drive at him, he still got him out at first base. It was great. He's fun to watch."

That "knuckleball line drive" Roark referred to came in the bottom of the fourth, when Espinosa couldn't catch Ruben Tejada's oddly moving liner to deep short. Espinosa had to pick up the loose ball on the ground and make a long throw to first, which he still managed to do in time.

"I tell you one thing: He's got something to throw with at shortstop," Baker said. "Even when he knocked that one line drive down, I didn't think he had a chance."

It's those kinds of plays that convince many with the Nationals they can live with Espinosa's offensive deficiencies in exchange for stellar defensive play. He did have a solid day at the plate, drawing a leadoff walk that ignited a three-run inning and also bringing two runs home with a sharp grounder through Kolten Wong's legs at second base.

Wong was charged with an error on the play, but Espinosa's approach - making sure he made contact with one out and two men in scoring position - is what impressed Baker the most.

"I like the whole process any time you put the ball in play," the manager said. "That stands for everybody. That inning where they kicked the ball around ... we didn't get the ball out of the infield. But that shows you what happens if you put the ball in play. If they had struck out, there'd have been no action. You know how I am about contact. It's like it falls on deaf ears, or people don't want to see it when something like that happens."

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