Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park, Denard Span asked Tony Tarasco to walk with him to center field. Earlier in the week, Span had missed two catches while leaping at the fence, highly difficult they he believed he could have caught. He wanted Tarasco to hit him fungoes, lobbing up pop flies from shallow center that would force him to jump at the fence.
The practice paid immediate dividends today, in the first of two game-saving catches Span made in the Nationals’ 6-3 victory over the Reds. Bryce Harper’s two-run homer carried the offense, and Span’s two catches, one in the sixth and one in the seventh, ensured the runs would not go to waste.
“That’s unbelievable,” Span said. “I’d rather do that any day of the week just to help my pitchers. I feel like I’m a defender first, and that usually picks me up offensively.”
The first catch came in the sixth, with a man on first and Joey Votto at the plate. Votto crushed a 1-2 splitter from Dan Haren to left-center field. Span had been playing Votto deep – “respecting his power,” Span said.
When the ball left Votto’s bat, the question seemed to be whether the ball would or wouldn’t go over the fence. Span reaching it did not seem to be part of the calculus. But Span combines three qualities at any elite level – speed, getting jumps and taking clean, precise routes to the ball.
“He’s proven to be such a tremendous athlete,” Tarasco said. “He’s so tenacious about his defense. He’s so sound. He’s not flashy. He’s such a sound outfielder.”
Span was able to close the distance, and then his work with Tarasco came into play. Span had wanted to better familiarize himself with the Nationals Park warning track and fence, and “it helped today,” he said. .He leapt at the track, banged into the wall and made the catch.
“I’m not sure if the ball would have went over,” Span said. “But I was prepared to bring it back if it did go out.”
In Span’s mind, that was not even the best catch he made Saturday. In the seventh inning, the Reds cut the lead to 6-3 against Tyler Clippard and then loaded the bases with two outs. Zack Cozart walked to the batter’s box, and Span, as dictated by the Nationals’ scouting reports and spry charts, shaded him to right center.
When Cozart ripped a line drive to left center, it sent a ripple of panic through the Nationals. “I didn’t think he was going to get it,” shortstop Ian Desmond said.
Span was not sure, either. He has played long enough to know how to make quick decisions, whether to gamble for a tough catch or take an angle better suited to cut the ball off. After three or four steps, he would either keep sprinting toward where the ball would land, or he would “banana out” and try to cut the ball off, possibly keeping the runner on first from scoring.
“I knew I had a good jump but I just wasn’t sure initially how far over in the left-center gap it was,” Span said. “After about four or five steps I could tell that I was catching up with it.”
Span, remarkably, chased down the ball on the run.
“He just cruised under it like it was no big deal,” Clippard said. “He just gets really good reads and jumps. There’s a lot of fast outfielders out there. But some of them don’t get the best jumps. A lot of the time, the great plays and the diving plays you see guys get are because they’re not getting good jumps. But they’re fast and athletic enough to make those diving plays. Denard, he didn’t even have to dive. “
“That’s just fun for me to go out there and run and show my speed and grab the ball like that in the gap,” Span said.
The word “clutch” is typically more associated with offense than defense, but Span had made two absolutely clutch catches. “He saved four or five runs today,” Haren said. They were as sensational as they were important.
“That’s just special,” Bryce Harper said. “There are guys who can make those plays, and there’s guys who can’t.”