Paolo Espino could look around the Washington Nationals’ bullpen and do the math. Manager Dave Martinez had already used six relief arms in Wednesday’s slugfest, and with Brad Hand unavailable, the Nationals didn’t have another option for the bottom of the ninth against the Philadelphia Phillies — apart from Espino.
So when Washington grabbed a 13-12 lead in the top half of the frame, necessitating Martinez to turn to his bullpen once more, out trotted Espino for a new role on a team in which he’d done everything else already.
“In my head,” Espino said, “I wasn’t really thinking, ‘Oh man, the save situation.’”
That mentality has been paramount for a pitcher thrust into different situations on the regular, turning his high-leverage appearance into nothing more daunting than anything else he’s done this season for the Nationals — and he’s done a lot. The 34-year-old minor league journeyman wasn’t in the cards for such a role this offseason. But during a 162-game season, teams need production from unexpected sources in unfamiliar spots.
That player has been Espino. He was called up in April for a spot start and figured he’d be sent down straight away. Instead, he’s stuck around by filling any role Martinez might require, and with the flurry of injuries in the bullpen and to the starting rotation, Espino has had no shortage of work, with Wednesday’s save just the latest example.
“We’ve got Espino, who’s basically pretty much our secret weapon,” Martinez said. “He comes in, the one guy I know is going to come in and pump strikes, and he did that. … I’ve always said, you need a guy that can throw strikes. He’s the guy. He’s going to pound the strike zone. He’s a smart pitcher.”
Before Washington rattled off nine wins in 10 games between June 13 and Wednesday, the Nationals’ pitching staff had an issue with control. They walked 9.5% of the batters they faced, the 10th-worst mark in the majors. Martinez stressed the need to limit those free bases, and across the current winning streak, his pitching staff’s walk rate dropped to a major-league best 6%, according to FanGraphs data.
Espino has long avoided free baserunners, though, walking just 2.8% of the batters he’s faced this season, per Baseball Savant. He ranks in the 99th percentile across baseball in walk rate, even though his velocity hovers around 89 mph for his fastball and he doesn’t possess unearthly movement on his off-speed selections.
Espino challenges hitters to swing at his offerings, believing in his ability to paint the corners while trusting the defense behind him to make plays. That’s led to a 2.20 ERA in 28 2/3 innings this year, quietly becoming one of Washington’s most consistent pitchers.
“I’ve been blessed with that,” Espino said. “My entire career I’ve had good command, and I think that’s been pretty much the key of my success. That’s what I do: I go out there and throw strikes, attack the hitters.”
Since arriving — and staying — at the major-league level in 2021, Espino’s been used as anything from a spot starter to middle reliever and now closer. First, he filled in for Stephen Strasburg. When Max Scherzer injured his groin and left after 12 pitches June 11, Espino’s 3 1/3 innings of emergency relief helped cover what could’ve been a disastrous moment for the bullpen’s long-term health.
When Scherzer missed his start last week, there was Espino again. He earned his first major league win, completing five innings for the first time in his career and allowing three hits and no walks while striking out two.
Then Wednesday, with the bullpen thin, Espino got the call late in the contest. Hand might’ve been used if he hadn’t already thrown four times in five days, including a 34-pitch outing Tuesday. Daniel Hudson or Will Harris were originally Washington’s additional late-inning options, but both are on the injured list, with Harris likely to miss the rest of the year.
Espino has pitched in the ninth inning of a contest 13 times in his career, although he’s never been put in a save situation. He’s typically inserted for mop-up duties that late in games. But Espino didn’t change his mentality Wednesday, earning his first save a week after earning his first win.
“It’s been crazy. A lot of emotions. It’s been very nice,” Espino said. “I mean, back-to-back appearances getting first win and first save, that’s really nice. But at the end of the day, it’s my job every time I go out there to do the best I can to help the team.”
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