Nats' latest bullpen change: Willingham up, Espino down

SEATTLE – A Nationals bullpen that has gone through a number of changes in the last week experienced another one today when the club promoted right-hander Amos Willingham from Triple-A and optioned Paolo Espino back to Rochester.

This move comes only two days after the Nats called Espino up to replace Chad Kuhl, who was designated for assignment. (The club officially requested unconditional release waivers on Kuhl today, making him a free agent.)

Willingham, 24, made a name for himself in the organization early this season, stringing together 10 consecutive scoreless appearances with 14 strikeouts and only one walk for Double-A Harrisburg. That earned him a promotion last month to Triple-A, where he wasn’t as dominant (3.46 ERA, 11 strikeouts, eight walks over 13 innings), but still pitched well enough to earn consideration for another promotion.

“I knew this could be a big year for me,” he said. “I needed to go in and take care of everything I needed to do, and I knew there would be opportunities to move up. I had no idea it would happen this fast. I was thinking at this point in the year maybe get to Triple-A, and then maybe be in Triple-A until September and maybe get a look up here. But it’s all happened so fast, it’s hard to really fathom the entire process.”

The Nationals might have called Willingham up Saturday to take Kuhl’s spot, but he had just thrown 30 pitches over two innings and likely wouldn’t have been available for another couple days. So they instead recalled Espino, who wound up pitching the ninth inning of Sunday’s 8-3 win in San Diego but retired only two of the five batters he faced, prompting manager Davey Martinez to summon closer Hunter Harvey for the final out.

A 17th round pick in 2019 out of Georgia Tech, Willingham worked his way up the organizational ladder since but didn’t crack many top prospect lists. Club officials took notice, though, when his fastball velocity increased from 92-93 mph to 95-97 mph, and had their eye on him for a possible promotion when a need arose.

“I think my mindset has kind of changed a little bit,” he said when asked if anything in particular clicked for him. “Sometimes I get a little timid, not really as aggressive as I like to be. We talk about four pitches or less (per batter). There were times where I didn’t trust my stuff enough. And talking with our analytics guys and pitching coaches, they’ve all told me I’ve got good stuff. Trust it. Use it. Being able to turn that on and just let it rip when I go out there, I feel like that’s been the biggest change in the last two or three years.”

Willingham – who for the record is not related to former Nationals outfielder Josh Willingham, though he said his cousin did play with him in the Marlins organization – said he was caught by surprise Sunday evening when Rochester manager Matt LeCroy gave him the news.

“He said: ‘I’ve got a secret to tell you. You’re going to the big leagues,’” Willingham recalled. “I just kind of looked at him for a little bit. I didn’t have any reaction. I didn’t know what to say.”

When he makes his debut, Willingham will become the 15th different reliever to pitch for the Nationals this season (plus position player Lane Thomas, who pitched an inning in a blowout). He’s the fifth different reliever to be added to the major league bullpen this month, joining Jordan Weems, Cory Abbott, Joe La Sorsa and Espino. Only Harvey, Kyle Finnegan, Mason Thompson and Rule 5 draftee Thaddeus Ward remain from the roster at the beginning of June.

Willingham ideally slots in as a middle reliever, an area of specific need for the Nats of late. Espino, a starter at Triple-A, was seen as more of a long man.

“I think he’s a better fit,” Martinez said. “Because we have Cory and we have Ward, too, who can give us some length. Here’s a guy, his last outing he threw two innings. That’s great. If he can do that, and Mason can do that as well, we’ll be in good shape.”

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