Danny Espinosa has always been up for a good challenge, whether it’s winning the battle against an opposing pitcher or beating someone out for a starting position.
The former Mater Dei standout is playing that role again this summer for the Washington Nationals, holding on to his starting shortstop position for one of the top teams in the National League, even as the organization primes his soon-to-be replacement one level below.
Regardless of how long he can keep a grip on his current role, Espinosa left his mark with the Nationals during a four-game series that began June 30 and ended July 3, driving in 15 runs against the Cincinnati Reds, a franchise record and third-most in major league history for a four-game set.
Espinosa, a switch-hitter, also became the first Nationals player to homer from both sides of the plate in the June 30 game, a feat he repeated three days later.
His phenomenal weekend didn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the league, as he was voted National League player of the week.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever won it, so it’s a great feeling for me,” Espinosa told the Washington Post.
Battling back to finish on top is nothing new for Espinosa, the only Mater Dei graduate currently playing in the majors.
As a junior at Mater Dei in the spring of 2004, he beat out the returning shortstop for the starting job. His stock rose so high after that season, he was projected to be drafted in the top five rounds the following year, but his batting average plummeted nearly 100 points during his senior season and he went undrafted.
Espinosa re-emerged at Long Beach State, but again had trouble stringing together top-notch seasons. Fortunately, the Nationals took a chance on the Santa Ana native and selected him in the third round of the 2008 Major League Draft.
The following March, he was invited to play in a spring training game with the Nationals and was plunked in the hip by a mid-90s fastball in his first at-bat. Espinosa didn’t wince in pain, instead jogging straight to first base.
“I didn’t feel a thing,” Espinosa said a few months later. “I had so much adrenaline and all I’m thinking is, ‘I’m not going to get taken out after my first at-bat. I’m staying in there.’”
Espinosa would eventually be called up to the major leagues toward the end of the 2010 season, and the following year became the starting second basemen for the Nationals. However, inconsistency continued to plague Espinosa and he was sent down to the minor leagues after a difficult start to the 2013 season.
He continued to bounce back, however, and in 2015 had his most productive season since 2012, hitting .240 with 13 home runs in 118 games.
Espinosa, 29, became the starting shortstop this season after Ian Desmond signed with the Texas Rangers in the offseason. Waiting down in the minors is top prospect Trea Turner, who has been steadily moving up the ladder with the goal of eventually being Washington’s anchor at shortstop.
Espinosa has put the organization’s plans on hold this season, mostly by slugging 18 home runs through the first 85 games, three off his career high.
Once again, Espinosa was back on top.