Denard Span turning his season around with hitting streak

September 4, 2013

(Steve Mitchell/Getty Images)

Before every Nationals game, Denard Span walks down the corridor from the Nationals clubhouse with hitting coach Rick Schu. As they enter the batting cage, Span sets the speakers to the Jay-Z station on Pandora. For 15 or 20 minutes, Span sticks to his daily routine, hitting short flips, working on the timing of his swing.

Span’s devotion to his routine, wanting to remain in the same space, is far removed from earlier in his first season the Nationals. After he came to Washington in a trade from the Twins, Span scuffled through the most challenging offensive stretch of his career. Over the past three weeks, Span has started to turn around his season. He has hit .491 during a career-long 16-game hitting streak with six extra-base hits, five walks and just six strikeouts.

On Aug. 16, Span’s slash line bottomed out at .258/.310/.353. After he went 3 for 6 last night, Span is now hitting .278/.329/.380. It’s still below his usual standard, but Span has at least shown his new team the kind of offensive threat he can be at the top of the order, and the kind of hard-worker he’ll be in the face of a slump.

“It’s been good just to show them, my teammates, some of the fans what I’m capable of doing,” Span said. “It’s big. I put a lot of pressure on myself early in the year just to be able to show them that. Not even so much that I’m doing good in this streak, but just to show them the type of player [and] man that I am as far as, I’m not going to give up. I’m going to keep grinding. That’s how I’ve always been as a person.”

Span’s hitting streak has come after, and may have been helped by, Manager Davey Johnson started sitting Span against many left-handed starters. Span wanted the chance to face them. “I hit lefties, man,” Span said. “I always have. Check my stats. I normally don’t say that but I’ve hit them my whole career in the big leagues.”

Sure enough, Span has a .357 career on-base percentage against left-handers, which is better than his rate against right-handed pitchers. Johnson said Span’s recent surge convinced him to start Span more often against lefty starters.

Before the Nationals began a three-day series in Kansas City on Aug. 23, Span had been telling coaches and teammates he was getting closer to where he needed to be. On the final day of that series – following a text message from his mom imploring him to swing at the first pitch more often – Span went 4 for 5 with a home run.

“I felt something,” Span said. “And ever since then, I’m kind of just trying to mimic that feeling and just stay with my same routine I’ve been doing for the last month or so.”

Span, like most hitters on a hot streak, has been loath to talk about his specific adjustments. “When you’re going good, you try not to think about those things,” Span said. The biggest change has been his transition to a new team. He played in the Twins’ organization his entire career, and it took time to adjust coming to a new franchise.

“It’s tough, man,” Span said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself this year. Just come into a whole new atmosphere and new place where nobody knows you, where in Minnesota, everybody knew me. If I got off to a bad start, they’d kind of be like, ‘You know what, we know you’ll be fine. He’s done it before, we’ve seen him do it before.’ When you come into a new team where nobody’s seen you when you’re going good, the first thing you show them is that you’re not playing good,it could be a little much. I learned a lot, and it’s only going to make me a better player. I think it is already.”

Now that Span has at last pulled out of his ragged offensive stretch, he can start to consider how, exactly, the struggle made him a better player. He’s not ready to talk about that, either.

“I ain’t done yet,” Span said. “I’ve still got a month left. It’s too early to say that. Maybe once the season is over with, I can answer that question a little better and reflect on the season and evaluate how I played. But not yet.”

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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James Wagner · September 4, 2013

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