Philadelphia Inquirer - March 11, 1980

Phillies’ Espinosa shifts from overwork to over easy


By Jayson Stark, Inquirer Staff Writer


CLEARWATER, Fla. – On Aug. 15, 1979, Nino Espinosa started warming up for a game in Cincinnati and discovered that his right shoulder was approximately as stiff as an on-ramp to the Schuylkill Expressway.


Naturally, Espinosa then went out and threw a complete-game five-hitter. Even struck out George Foster twice. Hey, Espinosa figured, he should feel this stiff every start.


Well, he got his wish. He did, in fact, feel that stiff every start. Unfortunately, he did not then go out and throw five-hitters every start. What he did do was win only one more game the rest of the season, a labored victory over his old friends, the Bleeping Mets.


By the middle of September, he already had racked up a career-high 212 innings. And his shoulder, it seemed, came only with a 180-inning warranty. So the Phillies simply sent him home to beautiful downtown Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic for a peaceful winter of repose.


Well, Espinosa hit Clearwater this spring after his peaceful winter of repose, but he forgot to bring his arm with him, at least in its usual ready-for-action state.


While officially hurting people like Jim Wright and Warren Brusstar have been buzzing fastballs in batting practice for a week now, Espinosa has thrown only gingerly on the sidelines. We know it's early, but if Espinosa were to lob them like this when the season starts, that Tug McGraw grand slam record might last about six days.


"I'm not worried," Espinosa said yesterday. "I've been to a bunch of different doctors, and they all say the same thing – it was just overwork. My shoulder got weak because of so much work."


Now, he says, it's merely a matter of building back strength in the shoulder. But you have to wonder whether Espinosa will be able to repeat his iron-arm act of a season ago, when he was the Phillies' second-leading winner (14-12).


For the first five months last year, Espinosa was about the only Phillies pitcher who got his name mentioned more times by the Sporting News than by the American Medical Association Journal. He was the one guy you could count on to be out there every fifth day, come rain or come shine or come Willie Stargell.


But all that took its toll. His problems started when every fifth day became every fourth day, back when the Phillies discovered that it was impossible to run a five-man rotation when you only have four healthy men to rotate.


"I never threw every four days before," Espinosa said. "In New York, it was always every five. Here, it wasn't because Danny (Ozark) or Dallas (Green) wanted to pitch me every four days. They had to. There's not too much you can do when you lose three starters in one day."


What Espinosa is feeling now, according to him and trainer Don Seger, is not a return of the same arm problems but simply the product of not having thrown all winter.


Espinosa has pitched winter ball in the Dominican Republic every year of his career. But this year he threw only twice, stints of five and four innings in December. That was immediately followed by a call from the Phillies asking him not to pitch anymore until March.


"I was really just kind of testing myself (in winter ball)," Espinosa said. "It didn't feel as bad then as it was the end of the season. And down here it doesn't feel as bad as it did in December. I really haven't felt anything so far. Of course, I haven't really put anything on the ball yet.


"This is the first time I've ever had any problems like this, so I don't know what to expect. Usually, every year I come to spring training already in good shape. I'd just come, grab the ball and throw like everybody else. So this has been really hard. I don't know. I guess we all go through this once."


The Phillies, however, have been through it as a unit about 62,000 times. So understandably, they are asking Espinosa to take it as slowly as possible this spring.


"Right now I'm just trying to improve a little bit every time I get on the mound," Espinosa said. "The reason I'm not throwing batting practice yet is they're afraid I'll get out there and start throwing hard, and then I'll be back where I was before,"


And the last thing the Phillies need is to have Espinosa back where he was before. It is too early to worry, and it is never too early not to worry. But in a spring in which things have gone almost too smoothly, Espinosa is the closest thing to a crisis the Phillies have.


NOTES: The Phillies again are close to obtaining Baltimore infielder Billy Smith. Green vetoed a Smith-for-Lonnie Smith trade earlier, but Paul Owens said yesterday, "We're trying to go another way on it. I don't think we're far apart. We have a chance to make it in the next day or so." The Orioles are looking for a right-handed-hitting outfielder and, according to a reliable source, are interested in Orlando Isales, 20, an excellent defensive outfielder who hit.274 at Oklahoma City last year.