Nats consider 'awesome' Espino 'a blessing'

Right-hander goes 2 innings in rain-shortened start, could pitch Sunday

September 30th, 2021

DENVER -- Entering this season, 34-year-old had pitched only 30 innings at the Major League level. By Wednesday night, he had exponentially surpassed that with 19 starts and 109 2/3 frames in a breakout year with the Nationals.

The right-hander tossed two innings in a rain-shortened start during the Nationals’ 10-5 loss to the Rockies on Wednesday at Coors Field. Espino allowed four runs, four hits (including one homer) and one walk.

Because he only threw 34 pitches before his outing was abbreviated by a two-hour rain delay, the Nats have not ruled out Espino taking the mound again on Sunday for the season finale against the Red Sox at Nationals Park. 

“I feel good,” Espino said. “I know my body’s definitely going to recover good for Sunday. If they want me to start and that’s a possibility, I’ll be ready for it. I’m going to prepare myself as if I’m going to go either to the ‘pen or to start on Sunday.”

Another appearance would wrap up a season in which 13 years of working through the Minor Leagues culminated in a starting job. Espino earned a spot in the Nationals’ rotation with his versatility. As injuries hit the Nats and their needs changed, Espino rose to the occasion. Whether it was finishing games early in the season or replacing Jon Lester the day the southpaw was traded to the Cardinals, he answered the call. 

“He’s been awesome for us, he really has,” manager Dave Martinez said before the game. “He keeps us in ballgames every time he goes out there. It’s been a blessing for us to have him."

During Espino’s 23 2/3 innings out of the bullpen this season, he set a Nationals team record by retiring 25 straight batters (April 24-May 14) as a reliever. He held opponents to a .198 batting average on the season while pitching in relief. 

With this success, Espino earned a consistent spot in the starting rotation in mid-July. Entering Wednesday, he had given up two earned runs or fewer in four of his last six starts. He also recorded a career-high seven strikeouts three times in five starts toward the end of the season.

​​“His ability to actually keep hitters off balance,” Martinez said of what made Espino a starter. “We watched him throughout, and he’s done a great job with that. Also his competitiveness, keeping us in the ballgame. Whatever he has that day, it’s all out for him. Whether it’s 90 pitches, 75 pitches, you know what you’re going to get from him every day, and I love that about him.”

While Espino has been a veteran leader to pitchers on Washington’s staff, he also soaked up knowledge from his experienced teammates throughout the season. Learning about preparation was a big asset. 

“He’s been an unbelievable teammate and a good person,” Martinez said. “Especially now that we’re so young, some of these other guys have looked up to him because he spent a lot of time in the Minor Leagues. He’s been pitching for a long time, so they kind of pick his brain as well.”

The Nationals’ first pitching decision will be to determine who gets the call on Sunday, with both Patrick Corbin and Erick Fedde already having made their final starts of the season (Fedde could pitch out of the bullpen in the final series). After that, the starting rotation will be one of the biggest areas of the roster to address this offseason. 

“This winter, we’re going to assess everything,” Martinez said. “But [Espino's] definitely done really well for us this year, and we’ll see what happens moving forward.”