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Espinosa homers to put the Nationals ahead

WASHINGTON -- Danny Espinosa stepped to the plate in the seventh inning Monday night with something to prove.

The second baseman no longer let his 0-for-13 start to Washington's homestand get to him. But when Pirates manager Clint Hurdle brought in right-handed reliever Jose Ascanio to make the switch-hitter bat lefty, Espinosa took it as a challenge.

And he responded in kind, sending a first-pitch fastball into the Nationals' bullpen to break a tie and help give Washington a 4-2 win in front of 21,960 fans at Nationals Park.

"The first thought was that it helped the team. The second thing was that it was a bad idea bringing in the righty," said Espinosa, who had two hard-hit outs from the right side of the plate to start the game. "A lot of people want to do that. That frustrates me. That puts fuel in my tank. You don't think I can hit left-handed. I'm not going to get you every time, but I'm going to get you."

For a club that ranked last in the National League with a .225 batting average entering the game, it was the first time a number of players got to an opposing pitcher in some time.

Espinosa, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Wilson Ramos drove in the four Nationals runs, and they combined to hit 3-for-32 in the first three games of this homestand.

Hairston has 13 years of Major League service to rely on, but Espinosa and Ramos are a pair of rookies that were just 23 years old on Opening Day.

"It doesn't matter if you're a rookie or a 15-year veteran, you're going to have your ups and downs in this game," said Hairston, who hit a solo homer in the fifth to give Washington a 2-1 lead. "Sometimes they say you're too young, then they say you're not going to do it again, then they say you're too old."

Nobody says the Nationals are old, but for as much as one game can reveal about a team, this one shows a sense of maturity. Offensive struggles that persisted all season have yet to carry over to defense, and it paid off against the Pirates.

Starter John Lannan walked Brandon Wood on four pitches to start the fourth, but Roger Bernadina threw out Wood, who attempted to advance from first to third on a Chris Snyder bloop single that never got past the center fielder.

Ronny Cedeno hit a double to the right-field wall that would have scored Wood, and Snyder advanced to third, but Ramos then caught Snyder on a missed squeeze attempt by Paul Maholm on the next play.

The opposing catcher could not escape a rundown, and Maholm, who allowed three runs over 6 1/3 innings while on the mound, went down looking to end the threat.

"We've played really good baseball whether we've hit or not," said manager Jim Riggleman. "Sometimes you have to get a break, and we got a couple tonight."

Rookie Cole Kimball caught one of them, earning his first win after taking over for Lannan in the seventh and allowing an inherited runner to score.

Andrew McCutchen tripled off the right-hander with Cedeno on second, but Kimball recovered to get a groundout and strikeout to end the inning.

But Kimball was more concerned about losing Lannan's lead than picking up his own win. Lannan struggled through the first two innings, using 45 pitches, but toughed out 6 1/3 frames of two-run ball.

Then Riggleman turned to the 25-year-old rookie for the third time since his Saturday promotion from Triple-A Syracuse.

"He's definitely one of those guys you wouldn't challenge to a fight," Hairston said of Kimball. "He's one of those guys that -- in a good way, very lovingly -- he may not be all there. But that's a good thing."

It makes Kimball fit in with the club, which suffered three consecutive one-run losses and shrugged it off to win its past two games.

Now Pittsburgh finds itself in a similar situation, though perhaps tougher having now dropped six straight.

"The opportunity definitely was there more than once or twice," McCutchen said. "We just need to go out and just continue to keep doing the same thing, grinding, and eventually things are going to go our way."

That's what the Nationals learned, and things went their way this time.

Whether it was from a losing streak, a slump or a challenge from an opposing manager, Espinosa and his teammates responded, and as Espinosa paused at home plate to watch his home run sail over the fence, he made a little bit of a statement.

"We have a lot of guys that have a little attitude," Hairston said. "We have a little swagger."

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