With a scoreless, 14-pitch, 11-strike, 1-2-3 frame on Thursday in Atlanta, reliever Paolo Espino lowered his ERA on the year to 2.12 in 11 games, (one start), and 17 innings so far this season, over which he’s held opposing hitters to a .167/.194/.300 line, walking two and striking out a total of 12 batters.
“He’s done really well,” Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez said of Washington’s 34-year-old, journeyman pitcher, after the outing against the Braves.
Espino debuted in the majors for the Milwaukee Brewers (and then the Texas Rangers), as a 30-year-old back in 2017, but he didn’t pitch in the big leagues again until he got 2020’s 60-game season, when he got another opportunity with the Nationals.
“The thing about it,” Martinez said when asked about Espino’s success this season, “he can throw strikes with any pitch he has. He keeps hitters off-balance. He’s really good about knowing what he wants to do to each hitter when he comes in the game, the hitters that he faces, so he’s done a great job for us.”
Working predominantly with a fastball he’s thrown 60.5% of the time, curveball (19.7%), and slider (18.1%), Espino has settled into his role in the bullpen over the first two months of the season, after he was called up to make a spot start back on April 18th.
He talked after going 4 1⁄3 innings on 75 pitches in that start, about making the most of each opportunity he has to show what he can do.
“This is something that I always dream of,” Espino said. “Every year, this is what I’m doing, I’m fighting, I’m doing everything that I can to get an opportunity, and when they told me I got very excited, I was happy that I was going to get another shot. I feel good. I definitely want to work on some stuff to get ready.
“Hopefully I get more opportunities to keep pitching and prove that I have the level to pitch up here.”
He has received more opportunities, though all of them have come out of the bullpen, and he has shown the Nationals he can pitch at this level and contribute out of the ‘pen.
Opposing hitters have just a .216 AVG on his four-seam fastball, a .067 AVG on his curve, and a .000 AVG on his slider.
“I trust all my pitches,” he said earlier this season, when asked about his decision-making on how he uses his slider vs his curve. “I normally use them regularly, they do — for me they do play a little different role.
“One is more side-to-side move, the other one is more down movement, so I try to mix them throughout the game.”
How is a pitcher throwing around 89-90 MPH with his fastball, and mixing in the breaking balls, handling hitters so well thus far? Is it deception? A lack of familiarity/scouting reports?
How does he keep the hitters off-balance as Martinez said?
“He’s got a little deception,” the skipper explained. “Plus he knows when and how to throw his fastball. A lot of times he elevates his fastball in certain counts, which is great. And he knows when to throw his hard slider versus his slow curveball or harder curveball, so he reminds me a lot of Aníbal Sánchez, really, how he attacks hitters and what he wants to do. He’s been great. And he’s been great coming out of the bullpen and giving us the innings that we need.”
While the manager mentioned Sánchez as a comp, we asked if he’s kind of slotted into the role as a Javy Guerra-type reliever from previous bullpens, who can give the team length if that’s what they need, come in for one inning, or start if there’s a need in the rotation, and if he is undervalued considering all he can offer the Nationals out of the bullpen?
“I can tell you now, I value him a lot,” Martinez said. “[Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey and I, we both, we talk about him a lot and you know the way we use him, I think we use him in great situations, but here’s a guy too that we know that if something happens we can plop him to start in an emergency and put him late in games if we need to, so, he’s very valuable to us and means a lot to me and his team.”