The notion of the Nationals thriving with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Daniel Hudson all on the injured list at the same time would’ve sounded fairly ludicrous to anyone who considered that nightmare scenario two weeks ago. How could this team, deficient in pitching depth and offensive might, not only survive but actually get better with those three arms unavailable?
In this most unusual season, that’s exactly what’s happening. The Nats are slowly climbing their way back up the ladder, not behind their pitching stars but behind all the other guys who are stepping up and delivering in impressive fashion.
Today, it was Paolo Espino and four relievers combining to hold down the Pirates in a 3-1 victory that earned the journeyman starter his long-awaited first major league win.
“When I was drafted (15 years ago) I thought I was going to be in the big leagues by my fifth year,” Espino said in a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “It definitely took a lot longer than I was hoping, or my family was hoping, or everybody was hoping. But it was also worth it. I’m just happy it finally came true.”
Espino was front and center today, but really it’s been everyone on the pitching staff chipping in for the past two weeks.
Over their last 12 games, Nationals starters have combined to post a miniscule 1.19 ERA. Over their last eight games, Nationals relievers have combined to post a 2.10 ERA.
Again, this is being done without the services of their three-time Cy Young Award winner, World Series MVP or most consistently effective reliever.
“They’re pitching with conviction,” manager Davey Martinez said. “And they’re throwing strikes. We walked one guy today. Other than that, they’re attacking the strike zone. They’re making guys put the ball in play.”
There’s been some offense, too, of course, because you can’t win ballgames without scoring at least one run. And today, the Nationals managed to score three thanks to a pair of big blasts. Yan Gomes took Pirates starter Chase De Jong deep in the second. Josh Bell then took reliever David Bednar deep for a two-run homer in the seventh, a little extra dagger in the hearts of the team that traded him to Washington last winter and now finds itself mired in a 10-game losing streak.
But this game - and this streak of four straight wins and six of their last eight - has been built primarily behind pitching. And today’s star was a new entry in the mix.
Espino’s path to this moment has been a long and winding one. Drafted by Cleveland in the 10th round way back in 2006, he didn’t make his major league debut until 2017 with the Brewers. It would be another three years before he was back in the big leagues with the Nationals making an emergency start in late September of the pandemic-shortened season.
He wasn’t really in their plans this season, either. But when Strasburg needed to go on the injured list on April 18 and the Nats again needed a last-minute emergency starter, Espino was the guy who was available and already on the right pitching schedule. And he performed well enough in that spot start against the Diamondbacks to remain on the active roster, now as a long reliever.
“Honestly, I thought it was going to be another one appearance and probably heading back down,” the 34-year-old said. “But once I stayed around, they moved me to the ‘pen. Every day, I was just trying to do my job, trying to do my best, trying to earn a little extra time. And I’m so happy that I’m still here. I just want to help the team as much as I can.”
He has indeed been here ever since, slowly earning Martinez’s trust to pitch in situations of more consequence. He was the guy who took over last Friday night against the Giants when Scherzer departed only 12 pitches in with a groin injury. And because Scherzer needed to go on the IL, it was Espino who got the ball to start today’s series finale against the Pirates.
Martinez figured he could get 50 or so pitches from Espino. He just never figured it would take the righty five full innings to reach that number.
Pumping strikes from the get-go with his simple fastball-curveball combo, Espino went right after Pittsburgh’s hitters and made them earn their way on base. He struck out only two but didn’t issue a walk. And he wound up allowing only three hits.
“I appreciate what he does,” Martinez said. “His job is never easy. He comes in and keeps us in the game. He gets spot starts for us. He does a lot of different things. And he’s done well at all of them.”
Two of the three hits off Espino came in succession with one out in the fourth when Bryan Reynolds doubled into the right field corner and Gregory Polanco singled to center, with Pirates third base coach Joey Cora holding a fast-charging Reynolds and not wanting to take a chance scoring on Victor Robles’ arm. Espino, though, took care of the jam with ease, striking out Phillip Evans with an 89 mph fastball and getting Ben Gamel to ground out to thwart the rally.
Espino certainly looked like he could keep going, but with his spot in the lineup due to lead off the bottom of the fifth, Martinez decided to send a pinch-hitter to the plate and thank the veteran right-hander for a job well done. Now Espino could only wait to see if his bullpen could hold a slim 1-0 lead and keep him in line for the win.
“That was my main goal today: Just try to go as deep as possible and hopefully make it through five,” the righty said. “I knew the bullpen was rested. I knew that as soon as I got to a certain point, they were probably going to go a reliever every inning. I was just trying to go out there, as deep as possible, and I knew the rest was going to be taken care of.”
The lead was razor thin because the Nationals yet again couldn’t make the most of golden opportunities to score runs in bunches. They got a solo homer from Gomes in the second, the catcher’s second such blast in as many days. Unfortunately, this one didn’t come with three runners on base the way Tuesday night’s first inning blast did.
Not that comparable opportunities didn’t present themselves again today. The Nats twice loaded the bases with one out. And couldn’t score either time. Jordy Mercer (strikeout) and Robles (popout) didn’t deliver in the fourth. Robles would find himself back at the plate with a chance to make amends in the sixth, but his fly ball to right wasn’t deep enough to score Bell. And despite the pleas of the crowd of 16,781 urging him on, pinch-hitter Ryan Zimmerman’s fly ball to center was caught at the warning track to end the inning and leave the Nationals a staggering 10-for-62 with the bases loaded.
“I’ve said this before: You’ve got to really get into those at-bats. You’ve got to be aggressive,” Martinez said. “And you’ve got to fight with two strikes to just put the ball in play. That’s really just it, especially with less than two outs. Just move the baseball. Anything can happen. You can score a run a lot of different ways. It didn’t happen tonight, ... but the at-bats are definitely getting better.”
Bell’s late homer did provide some much needed cushion for the bullpen, which didn’t need much. Kyle Finnegan did give up one run on back-to-back hits in the top of the eighth, but he was the only one of four relievers today who was scored upon.
Tanner Rainey continued his recent surge with a scoreless sixth. Sam Clay recorded the first two outs of the seventh before Finnegan completed the inning. And Brad Hand finished it off with a five-out save, stranding two runners in the ninth to complete an overwhelming pitching performance against the Pirates and secure his teammate a major league win 15 years in the making.
“I think I just saw something on Twitter that he’s thrown in 400 minor league games or something, and he finally got his first big league win,” Hand said. “It’s cool. He works hard. He did a great job today. We didn’t know how many innings he was going to be able to give us, and he was able to give us five. That was huge. I’m very happy for him, and hopefully there’s many more for him to come.”