After he whiffed at a 2-2 curveball from Miami Marlins reliever A.J. Ramos in the seventh inning, his fourth and final plate appearance of Thursday’s game, Denard Span retreated to the Nationals dugout. He wasn’t certain if this was his last at-bat of the game, but he had an inkling it would be, and he also had an inkling this would be the first game since Aug. 17 in which he failed to collect at least one hit.
“That felt weird, walking back to the dugout without getting a hit,” he said. “I felt sad, like I let myself down, let the fans down, they’ve been rooting for me.”
As Span walked toward the dugout, the crowd at Nationals Park applauded. Some fans near the Nationals dugout stood. Span took off his helmet and tipped it toward them. The longest hitting streak of his career, the longest in the majors this season, and the longest since Dan Uggla’s 33-game hitting streak in 2011 had finally met its end. The crowd reaction took away some of the sting.
“I’ve gotten a lot of scrutiny this year, with how I started, and for me to do what I’ve done, and give the fans an opportunity to see what I bring to the table,” said Span, who entered Thursday’s game 4 for 6 against Marlins starter Henderson Alvarez but went hitless in three at-bats against him. “It’s just been good for them to see that I am a good player, and Mike Rizzo and the Washington Nationals brought me here for a reason. It’s just an unbelievable feeling, I’ll be honest.”
For Span, the best moment was yet to come. Once the game was over, he took a deep breath and told himself, “Now I can move on. We got a win, and now, let’s see if we can finish these last few games strong.” He answered questions in a on-field post-game television interview and headed into the clubhouse. The entire Nationals team, however, was gathered. They applauded, offered hugs and gave him high-fives.
“That made me feel good, because all year I’ve been struggling, I’ve been battling,” Span said. “And to see my teammates just give me some gratitude … I’ve been trying to earn their respect all year.”
Even during his offensive struggles earlier in the season, his defense has remained strong. He became a popular teammate for his approachable and friendly demeanor, even when he was moved out of the top spot of the lineup and occasionally platooned this summer.
“I wish I could’ve gotten going back in May,” he said. “The whole team wishes we could’ve been playing a lot better. I think if we would have been, then we wouldn’t be in this situation we’re in now.”
During his 29-game hitting streak, his average jumped from .258 to .281. His on-base percentage improved from .310 to .329.
“I know that early on in the season he probably felt a little bit of extra weight, coming to a new team, leaving a team he’d been with for so long,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “It’s good to see him playing the way he knows he can play. He’s been stealing bases well, hitting well, and just really been solid defensively all year long.
“But yeah, I mean, obviously you never want to see someone who goes to that extent of a hitting streak have it end but it was awesome that the fans recognized it. Credit to them because a couple years ago they probably wouldn’t have been paying attention to something like that. That’s no knock on them. They’re really falling in love with this team and we feel it and we appreciate it.”
Once Span’s hitting streak reached 15 games, he knew he was in the midst of something special. Early on, some hits came when Span didn’t start and was inserted as a late-game sub. On Sept. 1, he smacked a pinch-hit single to extend the streak. He developed a greater appreciation for the magnitude of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, the benchmark for all hitting streaks. “That’s two straight months of getting a base hit and that’s unreal,” he said.
“You gotta tip your cap to Joe DiMaggio because that’s a record that I don’t think will ever be broke,” left fielder Bryce Harper said. “Denard made a good run at it. I tip my cap to him and I think everyone in baseball did.”
Span admitted that he wanted to reach Ryan Zimmerman’s team record 30-game hitting streak. After the game, he asked Zimmerman if he could sleep easier now. Zimmerman smiled back at him.