Nats' blasts deal Cards, Leake tough loss

Nats' blasts deal Cards, Leake tough loss

WASHINGTON -- Danny Espinosa's solo home run, which followed Bryce Harper's monster tying blast an inning earlier, lifted the Nationals over the Cardinals, 2-1, at Nationals Park in Thursday night's four-game series opener.

Cardinals starter Mike Leake cruised through five scoreless innings before allowing Harper's solo shot in the sixth and Espinosa's decisive blast in the seventh.

Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for Diaz, Espinosa, Harper and other #ASGWorthy players

"A hanging changeup and a hanging slider right where hitters want the ball," said Leake, who was backed by Aledmys Diaz's homer in the fourth to give the Cardinals an early 1-0 lead. "If you take those back it still looks like a zero-run ballgame."

"He pitched me tough my previous at-bats," Espinosa said. "I tried to battle with him. It was nice to get that hit right there," Espinosa said.

Papelbon slams the door

Espinosa is a guy Nationals manager Dusty Baker said he would never give up on, even though he has not been hitting for average.

"He's got some big hits for us, especially out of the eighth spot," Baker said.

Espinosa credits Baker for sticking with him and considers him more than just his manager.

"Having Dusty is kind of like having your dad coach the team," Espinosa said. "It's pretty cool. He is behind the guys. To have him behind me and support me to go out there every day, knowing that he wants me out there is a great feeling."

Molina saves day after infield popup confusion

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Harper homers:
Harper tied the game at 1 with his 12th home run of the season and his first since May 13 against the Marlins. The ball was projected by Statcast™ to travel 434 feet from home plate -- his longest homer of the season -- leaving his bat at 107.5 mph.

Statcast: Harper's moonshot

"I got a pitch I could handle, and did some damage with it," Harper said. "Just happy we came out with that W. 'Espi' being able to come up and do the same thing, and [we] get that W, that's what we want." More >

Must C: Harper's gloveless blast

Bryce Harper cuts up batting gloves after home run

Leake delivers again: Leake submitted his fourth straight impressive outing, giving up just the two runs over seven innings. He allowed seven hits and walked one but pitched around trouble, while strking out five. In his last four starts, the righty has allowed four runs in 28 innings and has lowered his ERA from 6.03 to 3.90.

"He was very unpredictable tonight," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "When you thought he might throw the sinker, he came with the cutter and then sped him up to use the changeup. The breaking ball had multiple breaks on it, and he threw it harder at times. He had everything tonight." More >

Leake's seven strong innings

Dusty has confidence in Ross: In the seventh inning, the Cardinals had runners on first and second with no outs. But Baker decided to let Ross get out of the jam. After Yadier Molina struck out, Kolten Wong hit into an inning-ending double play.

"I still felt good. I still had the good fastball with comand," said Ross, who earned the victory after allowing one run on six hits over seven innings. "I tried to pitch my way into a double play to get out of that inning. The count got a little longer than I'd like. It was big for me to build that confidence late in the game, try to get out of there and give us a chance to win."

Ross' great outing

"I was hoping more than anything that Joe would get the win, because he's been knocking on that [fourth] win for a long time, since April, I think. It was right on time, " Baker said. 

Diaz goes yard: Diaz's seventh home run of the season came on an 0-1 slider, one pitch after he'd fouled off a similar offering. The shortstop has been a pleasant surprise for St. Louis this season, batting .329 in place of the injured Jhonny Peralta. Diaz has been especially strong on the road, where he has hit .426 with five home runs.

SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Baker recorded the 1,700th victory of his managerial career. He is second among active managers behind the Giants' Bruce Bochy (1,732). More >

Baker on milestone victory

107-year-old McLaurin dances with Nationals

TRAINER'S ROOM
Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams exited with mid-back stiffness following a fourth-inning single. He considered himself day to day but will be re-evaluated Friday. More >

Adams' 4th-inning single

WHAT'S NEXT
Cardinals:
The Cards will continue their series against the Nationals on Friday at 6:05 p.m. CT, when they send Jaime Garcia to the mound at Nationals Park. After a strong start to the season, Garcia has struggled in his last two outings, giving up eight runs in 7 1/3 innings. In Sunday's loss to the D-backs, the righty lasted only 2 1/3 innings, allowing five runs.

Nationals: Right-hander Max Scherzer will get the start for Washington in the 7:05 p.m. ET game. After another strong outing last time out against the Marlins, Scherzer said he is starting to round into midseason form. He has struck out at least eight in three consecutive starts and owns a 2.31 ERA during that span.

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Bill Ladson has covered the Nationals/Expos for MLB.com since 2002 and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats.

Alex Putterman is a reporter for MLB.com and covered the Cardinals on Thursday.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.