The gulf between their talent and their results in 2013, many of the men who run the Washington Nationals believed, rested in their inability to churn out one run when they absolutely, desperately needed it. They wanted to keep scoring in bunches when possible, but improve during the moments that call for a solitary, night-changing, season-shifting run. Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park, against the lowliest team in the major leagues, the Nationals needed one run.

In the Nationals’ 4-3 victory over the Houston Astros, Adam LaRoche delivered the game-tying double in the eighth and the go-ahead single in the ninth. But the prelude to LaRoche’s liner up the middle may have pleased Manager Matt Williams the most. In the ninth inning, the Nationals eschewed might and squeezed out the game-winner with equal parts plate discipline, opportunism and sacrifice.

Denard Span reached base and stole second. Anthony Rendon moved him to third with a here-take-my-out grounder to second. And LaRoche drove home the game-winner.

“That was textbook,” LaRoche said. “We’ve done that a few times and got that guy on third and just haven’t got him in. We’ve taken care of the first couple parts of it. Nice to complete it there. To get a hit there, it’s just a bonus. It worked out. This is kind of a sleeper team. You lay down on them, you can look up in the ninth and you’ll be losing. It’s nice to come back there.”

Hours after Bryce Harper underwent thumb surgery likely to sideline him until July, the Nationals came back to avoid a loss against a foe that entered 9-17. Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez struck out nine and allowed five hits in six innings. Three of those hits came in succession, with two outs in the third inning, a spasm that cost him the lead and, ultimately, a chance at a win. Craig Stammen and Tyler Clippard each tossed scoreless innings, which set up Rafael Soriano for his fifth save and allowed the Nationals’ offense a chance to chip away.

The Nationals left the bases loaded in the eighth after they tied the game, and Span led off the ninth inning. He drew a four-pitch walk against reliever Josh Fields. When Span reached first base, coach Tony Tarasco informed him Fields’s delivery to the plate took 1.4 seconds on average.

“This is a guy you can get,” Tarasco told him.

Span had the green light. In a spot that everyone in the stadium knew called for a steal, Span studied Fields, got a jump and swiped second base.

Rendon, a Houston native with the red-clad cheering section to prove it, worked a 3-1 count against Fields. In an advantageous spot, he remained content in performing a task. He broke his bat hitting a groundball to the right side, which pushed Span to third with one out for the meat of the order.