Escobar is Nats’ latest unconventional leadoff hitter

If you were wondering what prompted manager Davey Martinez decide to make Alcides Escobar his leadoff hitter the last two nights in San Diego, why a 12-year veteran with a career .293 on-base percentage was the right choice to bat atop the Nationals lineup, go back and re-watch the first at-bat of Monday night’s game.

The result of that at-bat against Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove was a groundout to short, nothing special. But everything that led to that unfortunate result - nine pitches seen, seven of them fouled off - spoke volumes about Escobar’s skill set.

“It was awesome, man,” Martinez said Tuesday during his Zoom session with reporters. “He threw every pitch in his arsenal he had. It’s good that he can extend at-bats the way he does and helps the guys behind him as well see that many pitches, see what the pitcher is trying to do. To me, regardless of the whole walking or whatever, part of a leadoff hitter is doing that. Disrupting the pitches, getting on base for the other guys. But more importantly doing what he does, and that’s putting the ball in play. He does that really well.”

Martinez certainly hasn’t been averse to using unconventional leadoff hitters this season. Kyle Schwarber, lest anyone forget, just hit 16 homers in 18 games as the Nationals’ No. 1 hitter.

But when Schwarber landed on the 10-day injured list with a significant hamstring strain and Martinez needed to find a replacement, he made another unconventional choice with the newest member of the roster.

Escobar-Slides-Home-Blue-Sidebar.jpgAcquired from the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate in Omaha on Saturday to account for the sudden swath of injuries to the Nationals’ major league and minor league shortstops, Escobar quickly made his presence felt. He produced seven hits in his first 12 at-bats before going 0-for-4 with a walk in Tuesday’s loss.

All this from a guy who hadn’t played in the big leagues since 2018. Escobar spent 2019 with the White Sox’s Triple-A club in Charlotte, then spent 2020 with the Yakult Swallows in Japan. He returned to the Royals organization this spring and played in 35 games in Omaha before the desperate Nationals came calling.

“He’s worked really hard to get back to the big leagues, and it shows,” Martinez said. “I talked to him when he got in there, and I told him: ‘Hey, I know you’re a good player. I’ve seen you play before. Just don’t try to do too much. Just you be you and just have fun.’ “

The Nationals aren’t the first team to give Escobar a shot at leading off. Former Kansas City manager Ned Yost took plenty of heat for batting a player with a sub-.300 on-base percentage atop his otherwise stacked lineup 131 times in 2015. Then Escobar and the contact-happy Royals won the World Series.

“I don’t expect him to go out there and take his walks,” Martinez said. “But you could see after his first at-bat (Monday), he’s a guy that puts the ball in play. He’s going to foul balls off. He’s going to run up pitch counts and do the little things. Yesterday we had a perfect safety squeeze with him up. It’s nice to get a guy up there that knows how to handle the bat. He can hit behind runners. He does all that stuff extremely well.”

With Trea Turner back from his four-day layoff with a jammed finger, Escobar remained in the lineup at second base, with Josh Harrison moving to left field. That may not remain the case for long. But as long as he’s around, Escobar will try to make the most of this unexpected chance to return to the big leagues with a new organization.

“Very excited and happy that the team was able to give me this opportunity to be a part of this team,” he said Saturday via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “And do anything possible to help them win and give the most out of me, to be able to do that and help them win any way possible.”

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