Unheralded Espinal emerging as key all-around contributor for Blue Jays

Arash Madani spoke to Santiago Espinal about his bare-handed catch to end the Blue Jays' last game, being ready for situations the team will need him in, and how his preparation will help him take the next step in his baseball career.

TORONTO – Through a long and grinding season, Santiago Espinal hardly ever seems overwhelmed.

But playing in Toronto for the first time was one of those rare moments.

“It almost drew tears from me— It did draw tears from me, I won’t lie to you,” Espinal said, in Spanish, from Seattle. “For me, that was something so special and I will never forget it. Fifteen thousand fans felt more like a million.”

Espinal ended up making arguably the defensive play of the year in that 6-4 win against the Kansas City Royals on July 30. It was also his first ever home game with the Toronto Blue Jays -- an unforgettable moment in a season that’s been filled with them for the 26-year-old major-league sophomore.

Espinal has carved a role beyond the Blue Jays bench, emerging as the team’s primary third baseman as Cavan Biggio continues to deal with back and neck injuries.

His work ethic and preparation have been pivotal in earning Espinal the trust of Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. As a 2016 10th-round pick who didn’t make the big leagues until last year, he appreciates the importance of being ready for the call – whatever it may be.

“It hasn’t been easy, getting here,” Espinal said. “It’s about a lot of dedication and a lot of work, especially mentally. In this work, the mind must always stay positive. Ninety-nine per cent of the work is mental.

“Thankfully, I’ve always kept myself steady, always positive, to come in every day and play and stay ready for whatever opportunity the team will give me.”

His patience has paid off.

It was back in 2018 that Espinal joined the Blue Jays in a relatively quiet trade that sent Steve Pearce to the Boston Red Sox.

After toiling in the minors for two years, Espinal finally made the major leagues in 2020, mostly as an up-and-down utilityman on the Blue Jays bench. The majority of his reps last year came at shortstop, but with the addition of Marcus Semien, third base offered Espinal the best chance to crack the lineup in 2021.

As Biggio struggled with injuries and at bats opened at the hot corner, Espinal took the step from bench player to everyday guy.

The Dominican native has enjoyed a successful stretch since his last triple-A stint in mid-July, making the highlight reels for his defence while batting .287 with a .346 on-base percentage and 14 RBI over 72 games this season – including a three-hit performance in the Blue Jays’ Sunday win against the Seattle Mariners.

“Most of the times I’ve spoken to Charlie, I’ve told him that I’m ready for whatever they need from me,” said Espinal. “Whether that be fielding, hitting or running … I always tell him, ‘don’t be afraid to tell me what you need.’ And he has trusted me.

“That’s a good thing, that he knows I will always be ready for whatever the team needs.”

Espinal has had his issues with right-handed pitchers, and his .174 batting average in August is certainly a point of concern. But he’s still hitting .333 against lefties and has tacked on three stolen bases to those numbers.

Though he lacks the power some third basemen provide, Espinal can be an above-average contact hitter, giving the Blue Jays a chance to bring back to the plate the scary-talented top of their lineup. All of that as the No. 8 or 9 hitter in the order.

“He’s been outstanding,” Montoyo said of Espinal. “He’s ready to play whenever you play him. This guy, you can not play him for a week and then play him again and he does a great job. He’s had a great year. He’s part of our success.”

Patience and a positive mindset doubtless are attributes the Blue Jays could use at the moment. After dropping the three-game series against the Mariners over the weekend, Toronto now finds itself four-and-a-half games out of a wild-card spot in the American League.

After their off-day on Monday, the Blue Jays begin a two-game series against the Washington Nationals, looking to build on the momentum of their win on Sunday. After that, a home series against the subpar Detroit Tigers awaits – along with a chance to gain some ground on the chase for October baseball.

But Espinal isn’t thinking that far ahead.

“We should tackle the day in front of us,” he said. “We can’t be in a hurry, we can’t think about tomorrow or in the future and only think about what’s happening now. (On Friday), we lost, but that’s in the past. Today, we’ll go again and we’ll play the game that we play.”

That has been the message across a young and talented roster still working to pay their dues – and likely facing an uphill climb for the rest of the regular season.

Through the rough stretches, Blue Jays teammates have found solace in the clubhouse.

“Every day, we’re always pushing each other forward and helping each other out,” said Espinal. “The communication among our players is tremendous, and it’s something we appreciate.

“I wish one day everyone could see, but in the clubhouse we’re all in it together.”

More than a solid hitter and a soothing clubhouse presence, Espinal has turned himself into one of the best third basemen in MLB, defensively. With soft hands and an accurate arm, he has committed just four errors over 72 games this season -- after posting just two in 23 games last year.

“Every time a batter sends it toward third, we feel like he’s going to end the play,” said Blue Jays third base coach Luis Rivera. “Defensively, he has a natural ability. Since he came over from Boston, we could see his ability. But he’s worked very hard and he’s gotten even better.”

Sooner or later, Biggio will find his way back to health and into the Jays lineup, which will most likely mean Espinal will see fewer reps. His overall numbers may also take a hit as the season progresses, since playing more frequently means facing more righties.

If and when that happens, Espinal should be prepared for it, too.

“Even when he’s not playing, sometimes he’ll go the whole game with his glove on, because he knows he may get called into the game at third,” said Rivera. “He’s always looking for ways to help the team, always attentive to the game we’re playing.

“He’s always ready.”

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