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New Miami phenom Espinosa takes his fastball to shortstop

By Stephen Holder

MIAMI–The Raiders of Gulliver Prep had come too far to let things slip away in the game’s last at-bat. Nonetheless, Florida Air Academy, a perennial power in Florida’s Class 3A division, was applying heavy doses of pressure with a state semifinal berth hanging in the balance.

The Raiders had used their top two pitchers, and now in a bases-loaded, one-out jam and postseason survival in serious jeopardy, it was Espy’s time. Espy is the guy who’s cool under pressure, the guy who seeks out competition. Basically, the guy you go to in a pinch. Two strikeouts later, Espy had once again stared a major challenge squarely in the eyes and won.

He’s been at it for years, and now major league scouts are banking on him doing it for years to come. What the masses of scouts have seen in him is precisely the reason David Espinosa is regarded as a high first-round pick in the upcoming draft.

And by the way, despite his 94-mph heater, Espinosa is no pitcher. He happens to be a shortstop and the nation’s top high school middle infielder. As for his pitching, well, that he does just for kicks.

"In a tense situation with the game on the line, I want to be the guy in that situation," Espinosa said. "A close game is what pumps me up."

The senior from Miami has captivated scouts this year, rising up the charts with meteoric speed. Gulliver Prep has several top prospects on its roster, but none can take more credit for the team’s national ranking than Espinosa. He was leading the Raiders in every conceivable category: hitting (.476), runs (50), total hits (49) and home runs (9). But when talking to this young man, it’s his love for baseball that strikes you as his most intriguing quality.

"The reason I play is because I love the game," Espinosa said. "If they didn’t (eventually) pay me to play, I would still play. The money, to me, is just a bonus. Baseball is what I am. I base everything in my life around baseball."

Two Degrees To A-Rod

Rich Hofman, who previously coached national power Westminster Christian in Miami, guided Espinosa in his freshman and sophomore seasons. With his former school, Hofman coached the last shortstop phenom to come out of the city–Mariners megastar Alex Rodriguez, the first pick in the 1993 draft. In at least one regard, Rodriguez and Espinosa are similar.

Espinosa "is a baseball junkie," Hofman said. "He has a love for the game that can’t be stopped. And that makes him a better player. He might be the best position player available."

Maybe that’s why George Brett took time out from his duties as a vice president with the Royals to come see the youngster for himself. Maybe that’s why Espinosa excelled at the blockbuster National Classic this season in Fullerton, Calif., where he garnered MVP honors and led his team to the championship.

Maybe that’s why he has one of the brightest futures of any prospect in the nation.

It’s been a roller-coaster ride for Espinosa the past year. He signed with defending NCAA champion Miami during the early signing period, but his stock has risen to a level even he never envisioned. Scouts are hounding him. Agents are chasing him. Even classmates and teachers at his college preparatory school are getting in on the act.

Questions about the draft come with incessant frequency. They want to know who his agent will be, how many millions he’ll make and, on occasion, whether he’ll sign an autograph. If they had been paying attention all along, they’d have known long ago that this kid had the goods.

"I knew he had the stuff when he was 12 years old," Gulliver Prep assistant coach J.C. Diaz said.

Prodigy And Coach

Diaz has become a close friend of the Espinosa family and served as David’s hitting coach in his middle school years. The two have been reunited since Espinosa transferred to Gulliver two years ago from Miami’s Westminster Christian.

"He’s what I call a competition player. The better the pitcher, the better he performs," Diaz said.

Diaz coached the seventh-grade version of Espinosa. To put him to the test, he would take him down the block to the local high school to take batting practice. In Espy’s first at-bat, he slapped a base hit off the team’s senior ace who was throwing in the high 80s. That’s when Diaz saw it coming.

Hofman, now in his second year at Fort Lauderdale’s Westminster Academy, saw the signs early on, too. Espinosa remembers well. "When I was a freshman, coach Hofman told my dad that I was going to be a first-round pick one day," Espinosa said. "I guess he must have seen something in me."

Stephen Holder covers high schools for the Miami Herald.

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