WASHINGTON -- It was a different kind of agony, but agony just the same.
The Cardinals sustained their sixth straight loss in disheartening fashion, falling to the Nationals by a 7-4 score after coming from behind in the late innings. Danny Espinosa's one-out, three-run, walk-off home run in the 10th completed the sweep for the surging Nats.
On Tuesday, St. Louis saw a late lead slip away in a slow-burn seventh inning. On Wednesday, the Cards were never really in the game. On Thursday, they showed plenty to like, coming from behind twice, but still the result was the same: another defeat.
"We just got beat," manager Tony La Russa said. "The effort today was outstanding. To come back like we did, the last day of the road trip and everything, it makes it a tougher loss."
Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina had gone deep for the visitors in the eighth and ninth, respectively, to force extra innings. But the Nationals made sure the good feeling was short-lived.
Fernando Salas dodged an error to pitch a shutout ninth, but couldn't get through the 10th with the tie intact. It seems likely that the extra work necessitated by a Pujols error in the ninth, which allowed Ian Desmond to reach base, increased Salas' degree of difficulty. Espinosa took Salas' 34th pitch deep.
Ryan Zimmerman poked a leadoff single on a 1-2 count to start the winning rally. With one out, Salas hit Mike Morse with a pitch. Salas then left a 2-1 offering over the plate to Espinosa, and the second baseman drilled it deep into the home bullpen in right field for the game-ender.
"He's well rested, but his stuff in the second inning was ... he got the ball up," La Russa said. "Zimmerman, couldn't put him away. Hit the guy. And then finally, that breaking ball didn't have much snap that [Espinosa] hit out of the park. It's kind of cruel. Fault me for bringing him out there the second inning."
The Cards are on their longest losing streak since they dropped seven in a row in September of 2008. However, they remained only one game behind the National League Central-leading Brewers, who lost again to the Cubs on Thursday. Cincinnati has pulled within two games of the lead, and the fourth-place Pirates are within three.
Matt Holliday's return to the lineup certainly provided a lift to the offense. He homered in his first at-bat in more than two weeks, then added a single in the midst of a run-scoring fourth inning rally. Holliday also walked twice. Unfortunately, Holliday didn't get enough help from his teammates, particularly the ones at the top of the order.
Starter John Lannan kept the Cards mostly quiet over his seven innings before giving way to a Nationals bullpen that had been extremely effective in the first two games of the series. Neither Tyler Greene nor Colby Rasmus, batting in the top two spots in the order, reached base all night. So while St. Louis hit three long balls, all were of the solo variety.
"He [Lannan] keeps the ball down pretty well, moves it in and out, used his offspeed pretty well," Pujols said. "He's not a guy that's going to overpower you, but you saw last night with Livan Hernandez, you don't have to have overpowering stuff to pitch on this level. You just need to be smart and know when to mix your pitches."
Starter Kyle Lohse enjoyed a pretty solid game save for the first two batters. Jayson Werth crushed a wayward sinker over the wall in left-center to lead off the game for Washington. Two pitches later, Roger Bernadina smoked another sinker that was down but over the plate for a 2-0 Washington lead.
The Cards briefly tied the game with Holliday's homer and Molina's run-scoring groundball out in the second, but the lead vanished almost instantly. Morse doubled with one out in the bottom half of the inning, followed by an Espinosa RBI single. Laynce Nix added a solo homer in the sixth. Meanwhile Lannan settled back in to get through seven strong.
Lohse had allowed five home runs all season prior to Thursday, and two in his previous seven starts. But a team that had been power-starved before the Cardinals came to town kept up its homer-happy ways from a night earlier. On Wednesday, Washington hit four home runs against three Cards pitchers, giving the Nats eight in two nights.
Espinosa's was just the capper, sending Washington to its sixth straight win.
"I think it was a changeup," he said, "but it was a little bit up in the zone and that was it."
The Cardinals finished a nine-game, three-city road trip with a 2-7 mark. Once one of the league's best road teams, they have fallen to an even 20-20 away from Busch Stadium this year.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.