Lack of win doesn't diminish Espino's strong start

LOS ANGELES – It was a pretty sizeable mismatch on paper. On one side, Tony Gonsolin, owner of an 11-0 record and 2.02 ERA in 18 starts. On the other side, Paolo Espino, owner of an 0-3 record and 3.57 ERA in 27 games (only seven of them starts).

What transpired Monday at Dodger Stadium, though, was a friendly reminder that anything can happen on any given night in baseball. And though it hasn’t happened all that often to the Nationals this season, it’s still possible to happen at any given moment.

On this night, Espino was the better pitcher. The 35-year-old journeyman allowed just one run over his four-plus innings, scattering four hits while striking out two and recording quick outs. Gonsolin, meanwhile, carried a no-hitter into the fourth but quickly unraveled, surrendering a leadoff homer to Yadiel Hernandez, then four straight two-out hits that allowed the Nats to open up a 4-1 lead they would hold all night en route to victory.

Thus did the Nationals become the first team this season to defeat Gonsolin. Yes, the same Nationals team that entered with a major-league-worst 32-65 record.

“You know what, he still is terrific,” manager Davey Martinez said of Gonsolin, now 11-1 with a 2.26 ERA. “He’s got good stuff. He mixes all his pitches in, he works quick. Today, we got an opportunity to score some runs off him, and we came through.”

Though he didn’t qualify for the win because he didn’t complete the requisite five innings, Espino nonetheless did his part to help make victory possible. He retired the first eight Dodgers batters he faced on a mere 27 pitches. And though he surrendered a solo homer to Trayce Thompson on a hanging 0-2 curveball in the bottom of the third, he bounced right back to keep Los Angeles from scoring again.

“I was just going after the guys,” Espino said. “I think I was just making good pitches and attacking the zone. And they were swinging, and I kind of recognized that. So I was just trying to get good pitches in the zone to try to go quick.”

His pitch count only 54 after allowing back-to-back singles to open the fifth, Espino certainly felt strong enough to continue. Martinez, though, didn’t like the signs he was seeing from the right-hander, who was beginning to leave pitches up in the zone.

And though the top of the Los Angeles lineup was still a couple batters away, Martinez didn’t feel like it was worth trying to push Espino any further and gave him what felt like a surprisingly quick hook.

“We were watching Espino closely,” Martinez said. “He started getting the ball up a little bit.”

The strategy worked, with Andres Machado coming up huge to escape the fifth-inning jam. He would be only the first of five Nationals relievers to pitch a scoreless inning and help secure this win.

“I was rooting, I was hoping everything was going to go well,” Espino said of watching his teammate get out of the jam he created. “When Machado came in and struck (Cody) Bellinger out, I was pumped. … I was very happy. That meant my guys didn’t score, and how he ended up pitching. He was really, really good.”

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