Espinal strengthens hold of Blue Jays second-base job with big weekend in Houston

Rookie Jeremy Pena crushed a Jordan Romano fastball in the 10th inning to walk off the Houston Astros over the Toronto Blue Jays 8-7.

HOUSTON — Entering the season, Santiago Espinal was positioned to play part of a second base platoon with Cavan Biggio.

The 27-year-old was coming off a quietly impressive 2021 in which he hit .311/.376/.405 over 246 plate appearances, establishing himself as not only a big-leaguer, but a key bench piece on a contender. He was bulked up, having cultivated 15 additional pounds of mass over a winter spent diligently lifting and eating. He was emerging from a spring training in which all that work began to pay dividends, with five of his 10 hits over 13 Grapefruit League games going for extra bases.

But if he was to earn every day playing time on the 2022 Toronto Blue Jays, Espinal was going to have to continue proving himself at the game’s highest level. He was going to have to make the most of his part-time role. He had to make himself undeniable.

It took him two weeks. Less, really, as Espinal’s started at second base for the Blue Jays in seven of the club’s last eight, while Biggio — who started Toronto’s first two games of the season at second — hasn’t played the position in a week-and-a-half. The job is Espinal’s. He’s run the jewels; he’s seized it. And, boy, did he just have himself a series deep in the heart of Texas this weekend.

He homered off Justin Verlander on Friday, taking a 95-mph heater from the future hall-of-famer 379-feet over the wall in left-centre. He homered again the next night, spoiling a pair of 0-2 fastballs from Astros reliever Blake Taylor before going down to get a slider and golfing it into the Crawford Boxes. And he came up with a huge, seventh-inning double on Sunday, ambushing a first-pitch Parker Mushinski fastball for a laser double into the left-centre field gap, plating what was then the go-ahead run.

Ultimately, Espinal’s effort was for naught, as the Astros leveled the game in the bottom half, coughed up another lead in extra innings, and then finally took the Blue Jays out of the fight with a two-run, walk-off homer against Jordan Romano in the bottom of the 10th — Jeremy Pena turned around a 97-mph fastball to spoil the Blue Jays closer’s run of 31 consecutive saves — for an 8-7 victory.

In all, it was a rivetingly competitive weekend of baseball between these two teams, as the Blue Jays took the first two games by one run apiece before the Astros ripped one back from their hands on Sunday. The two sides meet again next week at Rogers Centre. And it’s a decent bet they’ll play each other sometime this fall. If you enjoy compelling, back-and-forth, edge-of-your-seat April baseball, this series was for you. And Espinal kept popping up all over it.

“It’s funny — when it counts, here comes Espy,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “Defensively or offensively. That play he made up the middle, it was a great play to keep us in the game. He's playing good baseball. He's a good player."

Here’s that play he made up the middle:

Goodness. That ball came off Chas McCormick’s bat at 100-mph, giving Espinal precious little time to instinctively dart to his left from the opposite side of his base and pull it down. And even with how quickly it got on him, McCormick busted up the line at nearly 29 feet per second, giving Espinal less than five seconds to get the ball to first.

But the second baseman completed his exchange in less than a second-and-a-half while on his knees facing the centre field wall, somehow firing a 64-mph dart into Biggio’s glove at first. Balls in play with similar exit velocities and launch angles have led to hits two-thirds of the time in the StatCast era. But not this one.

And not the ball Espinal went and got in the third inning Friday — the 79-mph liner off Yordan Alvarez’s bat that carried a .670 xBA.

It’s even the subtle things with him, like how Espinal calmly backhanded this crazy short-hop on a 50 per cent hit probability ball off Kyle Tucker’s bat Friday:

Or how efficiently he turned this double play Sunday, completing a .63-second exchange and putting 77-mph behind his throw to first to just beat Yuli Gurriel, who got up the first base line in 4.34 seconds:

"He's amazing," Blue Jays starter Ross Stripling said Friday. "He's a glove that we need in the infield basically every night — and that's why you're seeing him play every night. He's obviously doing it with the bat, as well. But the glove speaks for itself."

If it feels like Espinal’s all over the place defensively, that’s because he is. The Blue Jays are optimizing their defensive positioning more than any team in baseball, entering Sunday having deployed a shift for 74.8 per cent of plate appearances this season. The second-place club, the ever-savvy Los Angeles Dodgers, are shifting in just 61.2 per cent of theirs.

Plot Toronto’s positioning so far this season and it looks like a Rorschach test:

Sometimes, Espinal’s on the right side of second. Sometimes, he’s on the left. Sometimes he’s in the shallow outfield as part of an aggressive infield shift. Sometimes he’s in the outfield proper as part of a four-outfielder alignment.

“With Chapman at third, Bo playing good short, and then you have Espy at second — as a pitcher you're as confident as you can be," Stripling said. "Put the ball on the ground, it's going to be an out. Or even hit a laser, they might dive and make the catch like Espy did for me. That's some peace of mind for a pitcher, for sure."

But we knew about the glove coming in, didn’t we? What we hadn’t yet seen so consistently at the big-league level was all the little things coaches and developers would tell you about as Espinal climbed the minor-league ladder. All those underlying elements that helped his teams win.

It’s the dogged, tenacious plate approach from the bottom of the lineup. The fact he entered Sunday having seen 4.33 pitches per plate appearance, MLB’s 15th-highest mark this season. It’s the amount of contact he’s making, putting his bat on over 83 per cent of the pitches he swings at, a top-30 MLB mark. And it’s the quality of that contact — the 85th percentile hard-hit rate and 88th percentile expected batting average he’s produced. It’s that sneaky pop. The seven balls he’s put in play at 102-mph or harder this season, matching his 2021 total in 190 fewer plate appearances.

It's all coming together to make Espinal an obvious name for Montoyo to jot onto his Blue Jays lineup card every night at second base. Entering the season, there was some question as to how much playing time he’d see in a potential platoon with Biggio. As to what Espinal would have to do — or what would have to happen around him in terms of injuries or underperformance — to be elevated to an everyday job. But now, only 16 games into Toronto’s season, there’s really no question. Santiago Espinal’s the Blue Jays second baseman.

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