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Big relief as a starter: Washington Nationals’ Paulo Espino makes bullpen games fun again

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Now has ten straight scoreless innings as a starter.

MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals
Paolo Espino earned his second win of the season in his third spot start Monday night against the New York Mets, allowing three hits over five scoreless innings.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Many baseball fans cringe to learn that their team has to use a relief pitcher as an emergency starter, but if you root for the Washington Nationals, Paulo Espino is making bullpen games fun again.

When a manager goes to a bullpen game, it usually means a reliable starter is injured or otherwise unable to pitch on a given night, and bullpen games usually mean relying on three or four guys to pitch well instead of just one or two.

But even with at least one starting pitcher on the Injured List every day since June 4, the Nationals are now a .500 ballclub again thanks to the third strong spot start of the year from Espino, who was not certain to make the team in Spring Training.

“Paolo was fantastic, the way he went out there and pitched his butt off,” said outfielder Kyle Schwarber, who hit a pair of homers to back Espino’s five scoreless innings in an 8-4 win over the New York Mets. Espino improved to 2-1 in his third start of the season, with all three of his decisions in those starts.

The Nationals are actually 2-3 in bullpen games this season — those started by Espino, Jefrey Rodriguez, or Austin Voth when one of the regular starters could not take his turn.

But Espino’s performances in recent emergency situations are among the best from any Nats’ pitcher this season.

Twelve days before Monday night’s gem, Espino earned his first win of the season in an emergency start, after Max Scherzer was put on the Injured List.

He tossed five scoreless innings, allowing just three hits.

So Espino has now strung together 10 straight scoreless innings as a starter, and his ERA as a starter on the season is now 1.26.

He’s also logged 21 13 relief innings, with a 2.53 ERA and an 0.80 WHIP and his first career save.

“He’s been really good for us,” manager Davey Martinez said after the game.

“Here’s a guy that just a week ago, he closed out a game for us and got a save, and today he goes out and gets a win for us as a starter.”

That save came a week after Espino’s first MLB win, in emergency relief of Tanner Rainey, in the Nats’ wild, 13-12 win in Philadelphia.

“He’s very intuitive,” Martinez told reporters before Monday’s game. “He understands what our needs are and what he might expect.”

After Espino pitched two innings in Friday night’s loss in Miami, Martinez knew that Erick Fedde would not be available to pitch on Monday, so he told Espino to be ready.

“I talk to him a lot about not throwing bullpens, because we might need him in certain situations, so he skips a lot of his bullpens in-between,” Martinez said.

Knowing that Espino is always ready to go eases the skipper’s mind.

“In the back of your mind, always make sure that you have a chance to spot-start at any given moment,” said Martinez. “He works really hard behind the scenes are far as keeping himself ready.”

On Monday night, Espino’s 67 pitches, 54 for strikes, made quick work of the Mets’ lineup.

“I wasn’t making that many pitches, so I knew they were going to try to also let me go as deep as possible, so my command was good, pitches were good,” Espino said.

“But at the same time, [Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey always comes in and asks me, ‘How you feeling? Everything is good? You feel good?’ And, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ So everything was perfect.”

While Espino had only one inning without a baserunner, none got past second base, thanks to his propensity for making big pitches with two outs. Espino got a double play to get out of the first, a groundout to escape the third, and a flyout to end the fourth.

“Physically, I felt good, so I knew they were going to let me go as much as I could,” he explained. “I wasn’t putting any limits on myself, I was hoping at least to try to go through five, because I know how we’re trying to save the bullpen, so they gave me the opportunity to go all the way to the fifth, and I think that was pretty big.”

Espino seemed to save his best for last after giving up a single to Luis Guillorme to start the fifth, with lefty Sam Clay getting ready to follow him.

“Once he — Guillorme got on, I turned around and I saw there was somebody warming in the bullpen,” said Espino.

Espino needed just eight pitches after that to strand the runner, feeding Patrick Mazeika a steady diet of four-seamers until he hit a fly ball to Schwarber. Pitcher Jarad Eikhoff dropped down a sac bunt on the second pitch he saw to advance the runner, but Espino went to the breaking stuff to strike out Jeff McNeil.

“I definitely wanted to make really good pitches,” he said of the at bat with McNeil. “I was hoping definitely for a strikeout to try to get out of the inning, and I threw I think it was a changeup that he fouled off, then I threw two back-to-back curveballs and they were both perfect.”

Espino says he’s glad he can help the team in emergencies but he feels he can contribute in any inning or situation.

“It’s awesome, but at the same time I would just go out there whenever they need me,” he said. “It don’t matter the score for me. For me it’s more just help the team, get the innings that they need out of me.

“I’m thankful for all the opportunities they’ve been giving me, and I’m glad that they’re also, at the same time, really good moments for me to help the team too.”