‘Catalyst’ Denard Span extends hitting streak to 23 games

Toni L. Sandys/TWP

Toni L. Sandys/TWP

A fresh pair of cleats waited for Denard Span in his locker Thursday morning. He laced them up and headed out to stretch with his teammates. Before he took field at Citi Field, Stephen Strasburg noticed the new spikes and looked at Span. “You sure you want to change your cleats?” Strasburg asked.

“You know what?” Span replied. “You’re right.”

Span walked back to the Nationals and changed back into the same cleats he had worn for the duration of his 22-game hitting streak. In his fourth plate appearance of the day, after one of the closest calls during the stretch, Span ripped a double to right-center field and made it 23 straight games with a hit.

“I got back in the dugout and everybody was like ‘You’ve got to do it earlier than this, man, you’re giving us a heart attack,’” Span said. “So it’s fun just to hear everybody’s with me. I can tell everybody is rooting for me.”

Why not? Span’s surge has both righted his season and instigated the Nationals’ improbable push toward contention. The Nationals have gone 17-6 as Span has hit .385 during the hitting streak.

“He’s the catalyst,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “The leadoff guy is always the catalyst. Last year, [Jayson Werth], who’s on fire, led off all year. He set the tone. And that’s what’s happening now with Span.”

“Denard is one of those guys who kind of through the middle of the year wasn’t doing what he knew he was capable of, like a lot of us were,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Got to credit him. He continued to work hard and came everyday ready to play. The last month, month-and-a-half, he’s been doing great, getting on base, getting hits. It’s fun to have that guy on top of your order.”

Span has made a habit of ending any drama early in games, but Thursday he created doubt. In his second plate appearance, Span drew a walk. In his third, Span lined out to third base. When he led off the eighth, he took what could have been his last at-bat needing a hit.

“I was getting a little nervous, I’m not going to lie,” Span said. “After the lineout, I was like, ‘Yeah, It might be one of those days.’ But you know what, I was in between thinking positive and trying not to think about it at all. I was like, ‘You know what, if it ended today, I’m thankful for the streak and how it’s helped balance my season back.’ ”

Span moved ahead, 2-1, against reliever Frank Francisco. He threw Span a 92-mph fastball over the plate. “Took a good swing at a fastball,” Span said. The ball zipped to right-center, and after Span slid into second he clapped his hands.

“Guys were more excited when he kept that hitting streak alive,” Johnson said. “You should have seen the bench. They were up and yelling and whatever. So he’s key if he keeps going.”

>>> One last note from today’s game: Johnson promised Wednesday night he would use Xavier Cedeno more often. Sure enough, after he retired both hitters he faced Wednesday, Cedeno pitched a dominant, 1-2-3 eighth inning today. Cedeno whiffed Daniel Murphy on three pitches for the second day in a row, and he also struck out Lucas Duda.

After Cedeno spent almost all of the season at Class AAA Syracuse, Cedeno has quickly fallen into favor.

“Where was he all year when I needed him?” Johnson said. “Somebody dropped the ball. I’m glad to see him now.”

The Nationals lacked a reliable left-handed reliever all season, and Cedeno allowed lefties to hit .164 against him at Syracuse.

“His stuff’s nasty,” said starter Tanner Roark, Cedeno’s teammates for most of this season. “I watch him throw flat-grounds and stuff like that before the games. The catcher sometimes would have a hard time catching the ball. His balls moves a lot.”

Catcher Wilson Ramos said Cedeno has particularly vicious when he drops down to a sidearm motion. He can pitch to right-handed hitters with that delivery, chucking sliders at their back foot.

“It’s a late break,” Roark said. “It’s hard to pick up – very deceiving.”

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