WASHINGTON -- Denard Span's sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth inning lifted the Nationals over the Cardinals, 3-2, at Nationals Park on Sunday afternoon.
With the bases loaded, one out and right-hander Seth Maness on the mound, Span hit the ball to Jon Jay in left field. Once he saw Jay's back toward him, Danny Espinosa knew he could score from third easily, and he did.
What made the win -- which split the four-game series -- even more impressive was that Washington won the game against the Cardinals' tough bullpen, which gave the Nats problems the previous day. St. Louis' relief corps recorded five strikeouts in 2 1/3 innings Saturday.
"Those aren't easy at-bats,' Espinosa said. "You really have to make those guys come to you. They make good pitches and they throw hard. It's not like they are throwing 97 down the middle. They are making good pitches with it, too. Everyone did a good job of making them come to them and getting a good pitch."
The Nationals looked like a different team after the victory. There was Span being mobbed by his teammates. For a brief moment, he was hoping they wouldn't celebrate by hitting him on the head. He was just activated from the 7-day disabled list Saturday because of a concussion.
"I'm thinking it, but I couldn't say it," Span said. "I was screaming so loud. I was so into the moment. At the same time, I'm thinking, 'Don't hit me upside the head too hard, because I had just come off the DL,' but at that moment, [with] the adrenaline and excitement, I was just having fun."
It was an uneventful day for outfielder Bryce Harper. A day after being taken out of the game because he didn't run out a ground ball, manager Matt Williams had a talk with Harper before Sunday's game and informed him that he was in the lineup.
"I sat with him for a couple of minutes near his locker and I told him that I'm confident in him, I'm proud of him and he was going to have an impact today, which he did. He had an impact getting a base hit and he gave us another opportunity [to score in the eighth inning]," Williams said "He made some nice plays in the outfield. He did well."
Harper was happy to be back out on the field and part of the victory.
"[Williams] just said, 'Go get 'em.' That's the three words he said. He was every enthusiastic," Harper said.
It looked like Stephen Strasburg was going to be a tough-luck loser. He left the game behind, 2-0, after six innings. In the second, Jhonny Peralta grounded into a double play, scoring Matt Adams. Three innings later, right-hander Shelby Miller doubled to left-center field, scoring Peter Bourjos to make it a 2-0 game.
"I was pretty happy we were able to put a couple together," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Obviously, a big hit by Shelby. That gives you a little bit of room. Then we get the ball into the hands of the guys we like to get the ball to. Good offenses are going to put good at-bats on tough pitching, and today they got us."
The Nationals had Miller on the ropes during his 5 1/3 innings, but couldn't score. Their biggest chance against him occurred in the sixth. With one out, Espinosa walked and Jose Lobaton followed with a single.
Miller was removed in favor of left-hander Randy Choate, who was able to get pinch-hitter Zach Walters to hit a routine ground ball to third baseman Matt Carpenter, who booted the ball to load the bases. However, Span and Harper hit into force plays to end the threat.
Before the seventh, the Nationals were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, but that would change against right-hander Carlos Martinez. With runners on first and second, Ian Desmond hit a ground ball past Mark Ellis for a hit, scoring Adam LaRoche. Espinosa followed and singled to right field, scoring Anthony Rendon and tying the score at 2.
Espinosa went 3-for-4 and raised his batting average to .313. He is clearly the most improved player on the Nationals. Last year at this time, Espinosa was dealing with a right wrist injury and spent most of the season with Triple-A Syracuse.
"I'm trying to get a good pitch to hit," Espinosa said. "I'm not going up there saying, 'I feel so good, they are going to give in to me.' I don't feel like that. I'm just going up there and trying to take every at-bat the same way."
Washington had a chance to take the lead in the eighth. The club had runners on first and second when Matheny brought in right-hander Pat Neshek, who struck out Rendon to end the threat.
"That's a testament to their staff. Their pitching is good," Williams said. "We want to continue to give ourselves those opportunities because if we do, we have a chance."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.