ATTLEBORO — Trying to protect a two-run lead in the bottom of the fourth inning in Milford the other day, Alvaro Espinal knew that it was imperative to get to the ball as quickly as he could and relay it back to the infield.
Owning a 2-0 lead in its MIAA Division 1 South Sectional semifinal, the Attleboro High baseball team was determined to deter Durfee High from taking the extra base on the basepaths.
The Hilltoppers’ No. 3 batter had slashed a single into left-center field and thought he might be able to extend the base hit to two bases.
Espinal had other plans, however. Racing to his right, Espinal ran down the ball and quickly launched a relay throw to Bombardier second baseman Tim Callahan. The Hilltopper was surprised that Espinal could accomplish such a feat as he was out by a yard for the final out of the inning to end a Durfee threat.
“He was a left-handed hitter and we had shifted over,” Espinal said, “but the ball didn’t spin straight back and the grass was tall. I was able to get to it and make a good throw.”
The Hilltoppers may have been surprised, but not any member of the Bombardier baseball family and friends.
The Bryant University-bound Espinal “is as good as any outfielder I’ve seen,” said former AHS coach Matt Bosh, who had Espinal last season, his first at Attleboro High after transferring from Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, R.I.
Espinal has gunned down five baserunners this season, another exclamation mark defensively for the Bombardiers (14-9), who travel to Brockton’s Campanelli Stadium Saturday for a 1 p.m. showdown with Hockomock League rival Taunton High for the Division 1 South championship.
Espinal was the defensive MVP of the Bombardiers last season when they missed qualifying for the MIAA Tournament by one victory. Espinal hit .300 with 18 hits and 20 walks as a sophomore, his first season as a member of the Attlebor varsity team.
Espinal generally bats second in the Bombardier order as a southpaw swinger. While his .279 batting average is standard, Espinal focus at the plate is exceptional — he has drawn 19 walks, been hit by four pitches, stolen a team-best 13 bases, scored a team-best 18 runs and owns a team-best .471 on-base percentage.
“My average is lower than last year, but I worked on not striking out, I had something like 20 strikeouts last year,” said Espinal who has fanned just four times in 61 at-bats this season. “I’m just trying to hit the ball hard, whatever happens after that I have to live with.”
A product of the L&M Baseball Academy, Espinal’s elder brother (Ernesto) played two years of baseball at AHS, then transferred to Bishop Hendricken, which recently won the R.I. Interscholastic League’s Division 1 State championship.
“You have to have a scouting report that has a star next to the centerfielder,” Bosh said of Espinal’s defensive wizardry, quick feet, glue-like glove, and quick release in his throws.
“He has so many assists (six last season, throwing out four runners at the plate) because his release is so quick,” Bosh said. “He gets rid of the ball so fast, on the ground or catching a flyball. The ball is in and out (of his glove). He practices that all the time.
“If you’re a base coach or a kid with a hit, you’ve got to know that with a ball hit to him, you have to be more cautious than you normally are.”
With plenty of room in center field at Hayward Field, the home of the Bombardiers this season. or in other venues with expansive patches of grass, having a defender such as Espinal is a definite luxury.
AHS will be bidding for its first victory over Taunton High (18-7) in three tries this season, having lost 1-0 and 15-5 during the Hockomock League season.
Espinal, who has always been blessed with good speed, opted this past winter to improve his dexterity by joining the AHS indoor track team. He has played every outfield position with his youth and club teams “and because I have good foot speed, I can cover a lot of ground in center field.
“Defense is the one thing that I can take care of, that I can control.” Blessed with good hands as well, Espinal now carries a 12 1/4-inch Rawlings model glove.
“During the season, being able to compete against teams like Franklin and Mansfield gave us confidence,” Espinal added. “Everyone is having fun right now, that’s the main thing. We know that if we play good defense, we can beat anyone.”