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There's no I(njury) in TEAM

Greg Fiume

Remember last spring when the National League's best team had a second baseman who couldn't hit his weight? As we figured then and know for sure now, he really, really shouldn't have been playing:

The 26-year-old spent last offseason unable to lift weights because of a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder that he suffered late the previous year. Then, on April 14, he was hit by a pitch that caused a small fracture in his right wrist. Espinosa played through what originally was diagnosed as a bone bruise and didn't go on the disabled list until early June. After less than two weeks off, he began a rehab assignment at Syracuse and spent the rest of the season there, hitting only .216 with a .566 OPS in 75 games.

"There was times I couldn't pick my bat up with one hand," said Espinosa, who believes his rotator cuff wasn't a problem. "So my wrist was just in a bad place, and I shouldn't have been playing on it, but I made the choice to try to play on it.

"I shouldn't have been playing. But at the same time, I'm not the doctor reading the film. So I shouldn't have been playing on a broken wrist the whole year. But you're told you have a bruise, you have to play through a bruise. Everyone plays through bumps and bruises. I'm not gonna play through a broken wrist. If I'd have known it was a broken wrist, I wouldn't have been playing."

The Nationals and team physician, Dr. Wiemi Douoguih, were not available for comment.

It's indisputable that pennants have been lost because players have played when they were injured. For example, Pete Reiser shouldn't have played after suffering a brain injury in 1942. For another example, Dwight Evans shouldn't have played after suffering a brain injury in 1978. In both cases, the managers' stubbornness probably cost their teams championships. But of course it's also true that pennants have been won because players played while injured; sometimes an injured player is simply better than his replacement.

Not here, though. After getting hit by that pitch on the 14th, Espinosa was allowed to start 32 games, in which he batted .153 with two walks. Basically, everybody blew it, from Espinosa to general manager Mike Rizzo and everyone in between. And upon reflection, I'm inclined to blame Espinosa less than anyone else, because he's stuck in a culture in which you're simply supposed to play unless you've got a note from your doctor. Don't play, and you're not a team guy.

I wouldn't necessarily argue that Espinosa's action cost the Nationals a playoff spot. They finished four games behind the Reds for the second wild card, and his replacement (Anthony Rendon) wasn't very good. And the Nationals made only one "give-up" move; four days after trading for David DeJesus, the Nationals traded him away. Even that's a red herring, as the Nationals didn't have room for DeJesus in their starting lineup anyway.

Yes, if they hadn't fallen so far behind in the standings, they might have made some efforts to improve in July and August, but a) Espinosa was hardly the only reason they fell so far behind, and b) once Rendon was installed at second base in June, the Nationals really didn't have any gaping holes in the roster. They just had too many guys who weren't quite good enough.

But it's frustrating to see this happen again and again, year after year. Yes, thanks to the NFL's dreadful wrongness, baseball teams are getting a handle on the concussions. That's good news for everyone. But it would even better news if concussions weren't the only injuries considered dangerous not only to the player, but to his team's pennant chances.

By the way, it seems that Rendon is probably the Nationals' top second baseman, with Espinosa fighting for a spot as a utility infielder. But I'm not sure that's quite right. If Espinosa's really healthy this spring, he's nearly as good a hitter as Rendon, and a significantly better fielder. But of course nobody will believe he's really healthy until he plays well in March. Which probably gives Rendon the edge.