Denard Span dug into the batter’s box last night for the first plate appearance of the night, the start of a game plan, the first link in the chain. Span’s arrival, particularly in tandem with Jayson Werth hitting behind him, has given the Nationals a new kind of offensive identity. They aim to wear down starting pitchers and attack the soft underbelly of bullpens by forcing as many pitches as possible.
Span has made his impact felt in an obvious way so far, reaching base in 15 of 30 plate appearances after he went 2 for 3 with a walk in Tuesday night’s 8-7 victory by the Nationals. Just as important, though, has been the manner in which he has made the opposing starter expire. Last night provided a perfect template of how Span’s addition could change the Nationals.
In his first at-bat, Span saw eight pitches against Jake Peavy before he flied out to center. He would see 19 pitches over his four plate appearances, including 14 of the 100 that Peavy threw over 5 1/3 innings. On the season, Span has seen 4.29 pitches per plate appearance. Behind him is Werth, who has seen 4.4 pitches per plate over his career, making him one of the active leaders. It all starts with Span, siphoning drops of water and waiting for the dam to break.
“It’s a combination of the pitches seen and the on-base percentage,” Werth said. “It really sets a tone for the offense. You get a guy like that up top, he’s seeing all those pitches, he’s making the pitcher work. So not only are guys behind him getting a chance to see what the pitcher has got, but he’s taxing the pitcher. He gets more at-bats than anybody else. As the game goes on, you go through a lineup, you’re going to have to, as a pitcher, have to get through the lineup. It’s going to be tougher for him. He’s throwing more pitches. He’s got to throw more pitches that mean more. It’s not, flip something up there and get a first-pitch out. He’s got to work to get through the lineup.
“Over the course of the game, by the time you get to the third time through, the guy’s throwing a lot of meaningful pitches. Hopefully, his pitch count is up. You got a chance of seeing that sixth-inning [reliever], that seventh-inning guy. Over the course of a season, you see a sixth-inning guy in the bullpen, you see him more times than not, you’re giving your team a chance to win a higher percentage than not. Usually, the sixth-inning guy in a bullpen – not necessarily in our case – but for most teams, that guy is the guy you want to see.”
Last night, Peavy faced the minimum through three innings, with the help of Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez both getting thrown out trying to stretch singles into doubles.(Manager Davey Johnson, by the way, said both attempts were good risks with two outs.) At the start, Peavy was dealing. He fired an incredible front-door two-seam fastball over the inside corner to Adam LaRoche, which left LaRoche standing straight up. The next batter, Ian Desmond, struck out looking on a two-seamer that broke with severity over the outside corner of the plate
The Nationals still had a zero on the board after three, but they were achieving what they wanted. They were getting a look at Peavy, and they were taxing him by making him throw high-stress pitches.
“When that pitcher gets to two strikes, he’s got to throw a meaningful pitch to get you out,” Werth said. “Denard is flipping balls, fouling them off or getting a base hit with two strikes, spitting on a nasty ball in the dirt. That’s one pitch that guy had to throw max effort that he didn’t get anything out of. Now he’s got to throw another one. Over the course of a season, over the course of a game, even the top guys in the league, you get them to throw those meaningful pitches, those max-effort pitches, that should be strike three, should be outs, and they’re nothing. You go through a whole season, a whole six months of guys doing that, it plays in our favor. It makes everybody else in our lineup better.
“By the time you get to Harp and Zim and LaRoche, you’ve thrown a lot of pitches,” Werth added. “That takes a toll. Chances are, you’re not going to be as sharp as the game goes on. You might leave one over the plate. You might leave one up. The guys we’ve got hitting 3-4-5-6, those guys can do damage to pitches like that.”
The Nationals started chipping away. Span sparked a rally in the fourth with a single up the middle, moving to third on Harper’s single and then scoring on Zimmerman’s sac fly. In the fifth, Desmond found a pitch Peavy left over the plate and smoked it into the bullpen. The quality of Peavy’s pitches began to waver.
By the sixth, the Nationals started to batter him. Span, again in the middle of it, led off with a double. After a meeting on the mound, Werth pounced on a first-pitch fastball and launched it into the left field seats. Zimmerman walked, and LaRoche delivered the knockout blow, a home run to right that made it 6-2. The dam had broken.
And then the Nationals got what they really wanted – a look at Chicago’s middle relief. They added two more runs off a combination of four pitchers, and they needed all eight after the Nationals’ bullpen faltered.
“You make guys throw pitches and work,” Werth said. “You get them to work early in the game. By the third time around, their pitch count is up. They’re more tired than they were the first couple innings. That’s when you get ‘em. It’s a pretty good game plan.”
Span is at the tip of that spear. His value will become more apparent over the season. That eight-pitch at-bat to start the game resulted immediately in an out. By the end, it had helped contribute to the deterioration of a starter’s night. When they continue their series Wednesday, the White Sox will have used more than half their bullpen. The impact of a leadoff hitter shows not only in his on-base percentage or scoring runs, but in the corrosive effect he has on the other team.
“That’s something we’ve been missing,” LaRoche said. “Not necessarily a guy that sees pitches, because Jayson sees more pitches than anybody in the league. But a guy who’s constantly on base. We’ve got a small taste of it here. I think over the course of a year, you’re going to see the difference that can make.”
FROM THE POST
Adam LaRoche’s breakout night allowed the Nationals to hold to an 8-7 win over the White Sox, James Wager writes.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 8, Buffalo 2 (5 innings): Chris Marrero went 2 for 3 with a home run and a triple. Corey Brown went 2 for 3 with a double. Ross Ohlendorf allowed two runs in five innings on five hits and three walks, striking out four.
New Britain 9, Harrisburg 7: Destin Hood went 3 for 5 with a triple. Brian Goodwin went 1 for 4 with a walk. Anthony Rendon went 1 for 3 with a walk. Steve Souza went 1 for 1 with four walks. Brian Broderick allowed three runs in six innings on eight hits and no walks, striking out three.
Potomac 12, Salem 4: Billy Burns went 3 for 4 with a walk and is hitting .550. Jason Martinson went 1 for 3 with a walk and a home run. Kevin Keyes went 2 for 5 with two doubles. Blake Kelso went 3 for 5 with a double. Caleb Ramsey went 2 for 5 with a home run. Taylor Hill allowed two earned runs on six hits and a walk, striking out three.
Hagerstown 6, Lakewood 3: Carlos Lopez went 3 for 4 with a double. Mike McQuillan went 1 for 4 with a homer. Dixon Anderson allowed one run in six innings on four hits and a walk, striking out five.