Less than three innings had elapsed by the time Denard Span walked to the plate for his second at-bat Sunday, but the conditions of the game were clear. Cole Hamels and Stephen Strasburg were dealing. Runs would be rare and valuable. With two outs and Jose Lobaton on second base, circumstances placed the burden to score on Span.
Span fell behind, 1-2, and Hamels fired a 92-mph fastball. Later, when Span looked at the replay, he was taken aback at how far inside off the plate the pitch was. But Span used his quick, efficient swing to float the ball into center field, dumping an RBI single in front of Ben Revere for the game’s first and most pivotal run.
“My approach right now is to stay up the middle no matter who’s pitching, keep my hands inside the ball,” Span said. “For me to be able to keep my hands inside of a pitch that was way inside, it’s definitely a good sign.”
It has been nothing but good signs for Span, who reached base safely for the 29th consecutive game, the longest stretch in the majors this season. Sunday, Span raised his season slash-line to .294/.352/.395. Among the Nationals, only Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth have reached base more frequently than Span.
Over the season’s first two months, many observers called for Span to be moved down the lineup, citing a subpar on-base percentage. Manager Matt Williams stuck with Span at the top, and no one could argue he made the wrong choice. Since June 1, Span has reached base at a .386 clip and scored 39 runs in 53 games.
Once he’s reached base, Span has been a force. He has 23 steals in 25 attempts – the only time he’s been caught has come when he got picked off. Span ranks sixth in the majors in steals, and with three more he’ll match his career high.
“This is something I’ve been working since the day I got drafted at 18,” Span said. “It’s funny you say that. I probably feel the slowest I’ve ever felt in my career, just as far as getting older. [First base coach] Tony [Tarasco] has been in my ear since spring training started, before every game. He’s giving me something to get me ready. It’s just been a joy to see my hard work translate on to the field.”
Span laughed when he was asked how many bases he would steal with current knowledge and age-18 legs. He seemed to enjoy that thought as he considered an answer.
“I ain’t going to say Billy Hamilton numbers or Dee Gordon numbers,” Span said. “I don’t know. I’ll answer that at the end of the season.”
The Nationals don’t need to wait until then to determine whether to pick their $9 million option to keep Span in 2015. Even if Span had not heated up, if he only contributed his elite defense in center field, that would be a good deal. Now, it’s looking like a huge bargain. Remember when the Nationals traded Alex Meyer for a defensive whiz and prototypical leadoff hitter? That’s exactly the player they’ve gotten, and more, over the past two months.