• "You know, he's trying to get on base," Davey Johnson said...
The Washington Nationals' manager was talking to reporters before Game 4 of the 2012 National League Division Series with the St. Louis Cardinals. A writer wanted to know why Danny Espinosa, the Nats' 25-year-old second baseman, had been giving himself up so willingly, bunting as he had early in the second inning of Game 3 on a play on which Johnson, at least, thought first base ump Jim Joyce had blown a call.
The Nationals trailed 4-0 at the time, with Allen Craig doubling in a run in the first before Pete "Cosmos" Kozma hit a three-run home run off Edwin Jackson in the top of the second to give St. Louis a four-run lead. Ian Desmond singled off Cards' starter Chris Carpenter in the Nationals' second, and Espinosa, who'd gone 1 for 6 with a walk and three Ks in Games 1 and 2 in St. Louis, bunted, more for a hit than solely to move Desmond over, but he was called out on a throw to first by David Freese that appeared to arrive a step behind the Nats' speedy second baseman.
Davey Johnson came out to argue with first base ump Jim Joyce, who'd made/blown the call.
"'Just how come -- I'm 20 years old than you and I see him as safe?'" the Nats' 69-year-old skipper recalled asking Mr. Joyce. [A video replay of Joyce's infamous blown call at first that cost Armando Galarraga a potential no-hitter was played on the television broadcast of the game shortly after the play involving Espinosa.]
"And he said he thought he got it right," Johnson said incredulously, describing Joyce's contribution to the heated on-field discussion. "I said, 'Check the replay.' He said, 'I don't have the luxury of doing that right now.' But it was just one play,'" Johnson said, a play which was followed by two quick outs in an inning that had started with promise in what ended up an 8-0 Cardinals' win which resulted in a win-or-go-home Game 4 in the nation's capital.
• "You know he's just trying to get on base," Johnson said, referring to Espinosa back in the press conference before Game 4, "trying to make something happen. That always has been a weapon in his arsenal. He's always, coming up through the Minor Leagues, been a good bunter, bunting for base [hits]."
"He had one the other day," Johnson explained, referring to the previous day's close play at first, "... if the umpire got it right."
"There's not --- we don't give him a bunt sign," the Nats' manager insisted, "I have one, but he hasn't been getting it."
When the Nationals returned from playing the first two games in Busch Stadium Stadium in St. Louis, the shadows from the late afternoon sun in Missouri were a big story and at least partially to blame for Espinosa's struggles in the first two games on the NLDS, at least according to Davey Johnson.
• Espinosa bounced back from a rough .232/.309/.374 first half of the season with a strong .300/.330/.490 July in which he hit eight doubles, a triple and three home runs while walking twice and striking out 31 times in 26 games and 107 plate appearances. Over a stretch of 55 games and 231 plate appearances from July-August, Espinosa had a .278/.330/.453 line.
But in September, the '08 2nd Round pick had a .243/.310/.408 line with eight doubles, three home runs, nine walks and 36 Ks in 30 games and 113 PAs, finishing his the year with the NL's highest and MLB's third-highest strikeout total at 189 in 594 PAs, behind only Curtis Granderson (195 Ks) and Adam Dunn (222). Espinosa ended his third pro season with a .247/.315/.402 line, a team-high 37 doubles, the fifth-highest HR total (17) and the fourth-highest fWAR (+3.8) on the Nationals, which had him tied with Adam LaRoche behind Ryan Zimmerman (+4.5 fWAR), Bryce Harper (+4.9) and Ian Desmond (+5.4).
Espinosa ended the 2012 season with a stretch of nine games in which he was 3 for 29 with one home run, which was his only HR in his last 25 games and 92 plate appearances, over which he struck out 32 times. Before Game 3 of the NLDS, Davey Johnson was asked if he was worried about his second baseman. "You know, he's just a young hitter, aggressive, tons of talent. You know, he just needs to stay within himself."
"He's made a lot of strides this year," Johnson continued, "The conditions in St. Louis were pretty tough. I mean, they have some veteran hitters that have been in those conditions. My guys to a man had all the problems picking up the ball and the spin on the ball."
"And that, combined with a little inexperience, you can be overly aggressive," Johnson said, "I don't hold that against him. He always feels like he's the right guy at the right time to do something, and a lot of times he does. But it's just the inexperience, you can get a little overly aggressive and he needs to be a little more patient. But I think you'll see a different hitter here. They are more comfortable here, track the ball better."
Espinosa went 0 for 3 with 2 Ks in Game 3. 0 for 3 with a K in Game 4. 0 for 3 with a walk and a K in Game 5.
• "He's still learning how to make adjustments up here," Davey Johnson told a reporter who had asked the Nationals' manager before Game 5 of the NLDS how he thought Washington might improve on their 98-win 2012 campaign. Espinosa wasn't alone in that position on the Nats' roster.
"We still," Johnson said, "... a lot of guys haven't hit their stride. There's still a bigger ceiling for a number of players on this ballclub."
"You know, [Jordan Zimmermann], [Stephen Strasburg], [Ross Detwiler], this is really their first full season in the big leagues. Espinosa, he's still learning how to make adjustments up here. Certainly [Bryce] Harper, same thing. So I think -- and we lost our no.1 catcher, [Wilson] Ramos, and he's going to be back healthy next year. So I think we have got a way to go; we can still improve to be a lot stronger and more consistent ballclub."
Espinosa ended his first postseason run 1 for 15 with two walks, seven Ks and two sacrifice hits.
• Davey Johnson was asked before Game 4 of the NLDS if, as the Yankees had done with Alex Rodriguez, he'd ever had to sit a slumping star on any of the teams he led into the postseason in previous gigs. The veteran of 16 seasons on the bench as a major league manager brought up the '95 Reds and two outfielders on that Cincinnati squad about whom he had to make tough decisions. "I had Ron Gant and Reggie Sanders really struggling against the Braves' starting pitching," Johnson said, "and Ray Knight suggested I not hit them third and fourth, but I didn't like the -- they got us there. They were going to have to do it to get us to the final dance and they didn't do it."
"I still think even a slumping star has the best chance," Johnson said.