Mar 22, 2014, 5:34 PM EST
VIERA, Fla. — The Nationals have been telling Danny Espinosa all spring they’ve been pleased with his approach at the plate, even if the results didn’t necessarily back it up. Then on Saturday afternoon, that same approach — a compact swing and an emphasis on trying to hit the ball the other way — finally produced big-time results.
Espinosa clubbed a pair of homers from the left side of the plate, including an opposite-field shot in the bottom of the ninth that gave the Nationals a 6-5 victory over the Marlins.
“I feel like I’ve really been sticking to what I’m trying to do, and just simplify as much as possible,” he said. “It was nice today to see it.”
Espinosa’s first homer (a solo shot in the seventh) was an absolute bomb to right-center, into the wind at Space Coast Stadium. But it didn’t come on a home-run swing. Espinosa managed to clear the fence by a healthy margin with a short, compact swing that stood in stark contrast to many of his swings-and-misses from previous seasons.
“The ball he hit to right-center, that’s against the wind,” manager Matt Williams said. “It just lets him know that he’s got enough when he’s under control and puts the head of the bat on it. There’s plenty (of power) there.”
Espinosa’s second homer was even more impressive, considering it was an opposite-field, line drive to left with the game on the line in the bottom of the ninth.
“I was just trying to stay short to the ball and just be on time,” he said. “Not swinging as hard as I can, but just short and on time and trying to barrel the ball.”
Even with his big day, Espinosa raised his Grapefruit League batting average to a mere .214. Here again, though, the standard numbers don’t tell the entire story. Of much more significance to the Nationals: He has struck out only seven times in 47 plate appearances, a 14.9 percent rate that is dramatically reduced from his career mark of 27.1 percent.
Williams has refrained from naming a winner in the second base competition between Espinosa and Rendon, but all signs continue to point to Rendon starting on Opening Day and getting the bulk of the playing time moving forward. That would leave Espinosa as backup infielder, a role he suggested he’s willing to embrace should that decision be made.
“I’ll always prepare and go about my work like I’ve always done when I’ve started,” he said. “I’ll take my groundballs, I’ll work on my swing, I’ll be in the cage and do what I’ve always done. And if my name’s called later in that game for a pinch-hit, or if I get a start that day, I’ll be ready to go.”
More observations from Saturday’s game…
— Bryce Harper had an eventful day, both good and bad. The good: He roped a double to right-center in the fourth, only his second extra-base hit of the spring, and was quick to advance to third on a wild pitch. The bad: He was picked off first base in the sixth, and in the eighth made a terrible decision to throw the ball 320 feet to the plate on a 2-run double by Donovan Solano with the Nats leading 4-1 at the time, letting Solano take third in the process (and ultimately scoring the tying run on a sacrifice fly). Williams’ reaction to the play said it all: “Wow. Wrong move. But, wow.” The rookie manager plans to speak to Harper on Sunday about it, but at the same time doesn’t want his 21-year-old start to completely give up the aggressive style of play that defines him. “He’s aggressive, and we love that about him,” Williams said. “He’s 21 years old, and he’ll learn from everything that happens on the field, good and bad. We’ll talk to him about it certainly tomorrow, re-live it, give him options. … It’s phenomenal talent, and he’s well on his way to harnessing that when he needs to, and being aggressive when he needs to.”
— Rafael Soriano entered for the seventh and immediately served up a homer to Marcell Ozuna on a hanging slider. Soriano has now allowed nine runs on 11 hits in only 4 2/3 innings this spring, but his manager insists he’s not concerned. “He missed a little bit high today,” Williams said. “Ball was kind of up today, but that’s spring. Again, he had to wait a little bit longer today to get in the game than he normally would. Generally he’s (been pitching) in the fifth inning-ish; today he was in the seventh. So it’s all an adjustment period getting back into that, and we’ll have to adjust again as we get him closer to the ninth. So he’s fine.”
— Ross Detwiler also had a rough day out of the pen, giving up three runs in the eighth on two hits and two walks (though Harper’s ill-timed throw contributed to the whole mess). The left-hander was returning to pitch two days after his spring bullpen debut, so he’s still adjusting to the new role and being on the mound more regularly while throwing fewer pitches per appearance.
— While Doug Fister was making his first start in 20 days, Jordan Zimmermann was pitching in a minor-league game down the street. The right-hander tossed five scoreless innings, allowing three hits, a walk and a hit batter. He also struck out four. Zimmermann is slated to make one more exhibition appearance before his season debut April 3 against the Mets.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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