- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 26, 2011

CHICAGO | When Danny Espinosa came to the plate in the seventh inning Sunday, Chicago White Sox pitcher Philip Humber had faced 23 batters. Only one had a hit.

Espinosa, who had flied out and walked in his previous two at-bats, wasted no time. He connected with the first pitch Humber offered and watched it sail down the right-field line, a sure home run. First baseman Michael Morse, who had walked ahead of Espinosa, had reached third base when the official word came down: foul.

“Get back in the box and get a pitch and try to get a base hit,” Espinosa told himself. The next pitch wasn’t it. Too low to be a strike, Espinosa didn’t offer. But as Humber’s 85 mph slider barreled down the middle of the plate, lower than the changeup he’d pulled foul, Espinosa had found the one.

There was no ambiguity about the landing spot, which was several rows behind the visitors’ bullpen in right field. The Nationals’ second hit gave them a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish behind another stellar pitching performance.

When John McLaren’s final game as interim manager was in the books, his team had put up three hits and still won their 13th game in the past 15. They haven’t lost two in a row since June 8 and 9.

“He hit one foul, and I looked at the little guy [White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen] across the field and he’s kind of nodding,” McLaren said. “And boom, he hit it again.

“Danny’s improved a lot, trust me. This guy’s batting average is going way up. To me, he’s got to be thought of as a Gold Glove second baseman … They have a good nucleus. There’s vision here, and it’s starting to come together and I think the fans of Washington deserve this because it’s been a long time.”

McLaren began the emotional end to a tumultuous four days this morning by saying goodbye, calling small groups of players into his office. Then Livan Hernandez allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings with nine strikeouts - his highest total in nearly seven years. Espinosa added the swing that sent him out a winner.

“The John McLaren era is over in Washington,” McLaren said with a smile. “Is three games an era?”

“Well, if I never manage again,” he added, “I won.”

The Nationals’ offense certainly has awoken this month, but they won Sunday using a familiar formula: pitching and defense.

Washington won its eighth game this month when scoring two or one runs a mark that’s a testament to a pitching staff that has a 2.59 ERA in June.

“This is what we do here,” Hernandez said. “We play hard for nine innings. That’s it. This is what we do now.”