Batting leadoff, Espinosa went 2-for-4, putting his average at .232. The switch-hitter has been shaky against right-handers, batting just .188 against them going into the game. Tampa Bay starter Matt Moore is a lefty, which let Espinosa bat right-handed, but Espinosa turned around when right-handed reliever Joel Peralta (0-3) entered in the sixth and connected on what would be the game-winning hit.
"It's been huge to have the manager have my back," Espinosa said, "and I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't have stuck with me that long. Until you start doing what you're capable of doing, you still have the pressure to perform."
Johnson has defended Espinosa all season, saying that he would find his way, and he's been starting to do so this month, hitting .250 in June after running into trouble in April (.205) and May (.232). He also had just a .133 average with runners in scoring position going into this game.
Johnson added that Espinosa's big problem hitting left-handed was inside pitches. Opposing pitchers were crowding him, going in on him time and again, and he just didn't handle it well.
That's not an unusual situation, because many batters have weak areas and need to make adjustments.
Espinosa's doing that now, but the struggles he's had in his second full year are why his average hovered in the low .200s for the first few months.
Now things are starting to change, and Johnson's not surprised.
"Sometimes it just takes a little time, patience," he said. "I know he has the talent, the ability, and you just try not to put too much pressure on him. He's still a very dangerous hitter."
The delicious irony in this situation is that Espinosa got the big hit off Peralta, whose pine-tar troubles on Tuesday started all the heat and hostility in this series. Peralta's suspension -- eight games -- came down on Thursday, but he's appealed, and so is available to play until that process has been completed.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said that Peralta wasn't hesitant at all about taking the ball again on Thursday night.
"Of course [he] wanted to go back out there," Maddon said. "[His being used] was based on situational stuff, because they were going to pinch-hit once the game was tied. At that point you knew the lefties were going to come up there, and I liked him on all those guys."
Peralta entered in the sixth with the score tied at 2 and retired the first two batters before Jesus Flores lined a two-out double to left. Tampa Bay then intentionally walked pinch-hitter Adam LaRoche to get to Espinosa, who lined his two-run double to right. Roger Bernadina added an RBI double in the seventh for insurance.
Washington had scored twice in the third, on Michael Morse's sacrifice fly and Ian Desmond's RBI single -- Desmond ended up on second when Tampa Bay's infield seemed to forget about him -- but couldn't get anything else for starter Gio Gonzalez until Espinosa's double.
Gonzalez (9-3) was glad to see the hit, because Johnson had decided to pull him after six. The left-hander struggled at times, and had already thrown 98 pitches on a hot, steamy night, but he gave up just two runs on seven hits. Still, he wasn't too thrilled to come out.
Gonzalez relaxed a little after Espinosa gave Washington the lead, and Tyler Clippard earned his 11th save with a perfect ninth following Sean Burnett's 1-2-3 eighth.
"I just wanted to give my team a chance to at least come back, go out there and battle," Gonzalez said. "When all was said and done, I think it was one of those great team wins."