Danny Espinosa thrills in third act

Nationals manager Matt Williams has been scrambling since Day One of spring training after countless injuries left him experimenting with guys playing positions where they had little or no experience before.

The Nats have faced the most amount of adversity at third base, where Anthony Rendon went down with a sprained left MCL after making a remarkable diving stop in just his third Grapefruit League game. With infielder Yunel Escobar also sidelined for much of the exhibition season, Williams used seven-year major league veteran Ian Stewart mostly at third. When Escobar returned and began familiarizing himself with second base, the position Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo traded for him to play, Williams took a shot at moving his most gifted infielder, Danny Espinosa, to third base.

espinosa-grey-fielding-col-sidebar.jpgEspinosa, 27, had never played the position in his life. He was able to get a handful of starts at the end of the spring before Williams decided to try out Escobar at the hot corner. Williams would eventually decide on Escobar to be his opening day third baseman and he looked competent there until going down with a strained groin in Friday’s win.

Williams turned to the versatile Espinosa to immediately fill in at third for the remainder of the game. It would be Espinosa’s first major league action at the position and the last two games of the Phillies series became his first starts there in the bigs.

New Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman made the move across the diamond after playing spectacular defense at third base for most of the past decade, winning a Gold Glove in 2009. Zimmerman has been well aware of the wizardry that Espinosa possesses as a fielder, having played with him for the past six seasons.

“As a defender, he’s about as good as you can get at the major league level,” Zimmerman said. “Second and short, obviously, but he’s athletic enough to play third base. With the arm he has and the instincts he has, I don’t think any of us were really surprised to see him excel over there as well.”

Yesterday’s starter, Stephen Strasburg, has known of Espinosa’s game-changing defensive abilities since his college days. The two saw plenty of action against each other with Strasburg at San Diego State and Espinosa just a few miles north at Long Beach State. So it wasn’t a surprise for Strasburg to be the beneficiary of some incredible plays from Espinosa in Sunday’s win, including robbing Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez of a base hit on a bunt in the third inning.

“I don’t think he ever played third base in college,” Strasburg said. “From what I remember, he was mainly a shortstop and even second base here. But with his arm, he can play so deep so it’s great for a pitcher. And with his athleticism, on that bunt that Hernandez tried to do, and he made it look easy.”

Espinosa wasn’t done flashing the leather. In the fourth, Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis popped one up that was drifting toward the stands up the left field line. Espinosa began pursuit, measured the ball and made a dazzling over-the-shoulder basket catch sliding in the dirt up against the fence in foul territory.

“That was great,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “I know, especially for me, any time you’re moving somewhere else on the field and look up and chase a popup, it’s tough. To have the wherewithal of the wall, the track, everything, to make that play, that was huge. Those are outs that count just the same as every other one, but that was a big one right there.”

Espinosa was 0-for-4 at the plate in yesterday’s win, but he has been swinging the bat well. Three of his five hits have gone for extra bases, including two home runs. One of the storylines of spring training was Espinosa learning to hit exclusively from the right side. Once the games started to count, that plan was abandoned. Williams likes what he’s seeing.

“Well I just think he’s smooth,” Williams said. “I think he’s recognizing pitches. I think he’s got a good approach at the plate. His BPs have been good from both sides really. It’s quiet, and it’s compact, and that’s what he can do when it’s right. He’s got power from both sides of the plate. It’s special talent when it’s right, and when he’s easing into it, he’s got plenty. I like where he’s at.”

It’s possible that Escobar returns from his strained groin in time to suit up Tuesday night against the Cardinals at Nats Park. But with Escobar already suffering two early-season injuries on the left side of his midsection and with no timetable in sight for Rendon’s return, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more from Espinosa at the hot corner throughout the season.

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