For the first time this spring, Denard Span, the Nationals’ speedy new leadoff hitter, got an opportunity to test his legs on the base paths. While Brandon Lyon was on the mound for the New York Mets on Thursday night, Span drew a walk to start the third inning and then tore around the diamond. He stole two bases, advancing to third base over the next two at-bats and scoring on a ground out by Jayson Werth. Last season, Werth was the Nationals’ most effective leadoff hitter, but Span’s display in that inning Thursday revealed a skill missing atop last year’s lineup.
Since his arrival, Span has been slowly getting more acclimated to his new teammates and coaches, and Thursday was another step in that direction. While Kurt Suzuki was batting, he stole second base after first base coach Tony Tarasco told him to look at something Lyon was doing. “Once I saw, that was all I needed to hear and trusted it and took off,” Span said.
Standing at second base, Span had a clear view of righty Lyon’s high leg kick when throwing to the plate. He saw it on the first pitch of Werth’s at-bat and two pitches later saw it again. He stole third base easily.
“Part of being a base stealer is picking apart that guy while you’re on base,” he said.
Span came to Nationals camp hoping to improve on his base stealing — not necessarily more steals but smarter steals by getting better reads, jumps and being more efficient. Nationals Manager Davey Johnson, however, hasn’t traditionally been a big proponent of stolen bases, preferring the three-run home run instead.
Span has yet to speak with Johnson about how much latitude he will have this season. In talking with Tarasco and third-base coach Trent Jewett, however, Span has a sense that he will be allowed to steal — but judiciously.
“All about being smart and knowing the situation and knowing who is up,” Span said. “Who is coming up and not just running just to be running. I’mma run, but I’m stealing to be safe.”
For the Nationals lineup, that approach seems sensible. Why run the risk of being an out on the base paths when the team’s No. 2 through No. 6 hitters will likely look like this: Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond? Span admits it’s a fine between being aggressive and taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes.
“Even yesterday, I stole third, but I’ve got Jayson Werth up there and ideally there’s no need for me to go third,” Span said. “But if they’re going to give it to me, I’mma take it and it’s going to increase our chances of scoring a run. Now a ground ball to the shortstop or second baseman scores a run. Instead if I was at second base, it takes a base hit.”
Span also played alongside Werth in the outfield on Thursday, another chance to get used to hearing his voice when calling for fly balls and learning where he will position himself. In the few games he has played alongside Werth and Harper, Span already has felt more comfortable. He learned that Harper likes to just look at the center fielder and line up that way. But with Werth, Span learned that the right fielder likes to lcommunicate about positioning in between every few pitches.
Werth “knows these hitters a lot,” Span said. “I’m the center fielder; I’m the captain. But I still think he’s more of the veteran, No. 1 captain out there now.”
More than anything, Span also is learning to give both players their space in the outfield because both can cover plenty of ground. “It’s going to give me the opportunity to play center field and not play center and left or center and right like I’ve had to do in the past,” he said.
>>> First baseman Micah Owings, who is converting to a full-time position player this spring, said tests revealed he had inflammation in a tendon on the top part of his left wrist. He has been sidelined since he was the designated hitter in the first game of spring training Saturday. He hasn’t swung a bat since the minor left wrist injury appeared and will continue to rest it.
>>> Christian Garcia said his strained right wrist is improving daily. He is nearly a week into his 10-to-14-day shutdown to ease the minor injury. He has been biding his time by running and working out his lower body. “It’s been a long week,” he said, with a smile.
>>> It was a quiet morning in Viera as a handful of Nationals players — Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Stephen Strasburg, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Mattheus, Drew Storen and others — worked out at Space Coast Stadium. Chris Young, Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler and Matt Purke were scheduled to throw their bullpen sessions Friday.
>>> The Nationals make the long trip to Jupiter — Florida, not outer space — to face the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday. Five regulars will make the trip. The lineup:
1. Danny Espinosa, DH
2. Steve Lombardozzi, 2B
3. Ian Desmond, SS
4. Tyler Moore, LF
5. Kurt Suzuki, C
6. Chris Marrero, 1B
7. Corey Brown, CF
8. Anthony Rendon, 3B
9. Eury Perez, RF
– SP Gio Gonzalez