Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto’s nine previous starts this season. In those games, Cueto had allowed no more than two runs, not no fewer than two runs, while pitching at least seven innings. This version has been corrected.
Denard Span kissed his index fingers and pointed to the sky, standing on second base after he smoked a double off a lefty.
“I haven’t done that in a while,” Span thought as Nationals Park erupted around him. “That’s what I’m capable of doing.”
The cheers Span heard in the rollicking seventh inning drowned out questions about his place at the top of the Washington Nationals’ lineup for one night. He had spent all season searching, adjusting, inching closer. On Tuesday night, almost single-handedly, Span toppled the best pitcher in baseball.
In Doug Fister’s stellar Nationals Park home debut, Span lifted the Nationals to a 9-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, leading the assault on previously untouchable, impeccably braided right-hander Johnny Cueto. Span went 5 for 5 with two doubles, drove in two runs, scored two runs, stole a base and forced two errors.
“Those are special,” Manager Matt Williams said. “Those don’t happen very often.”
Earlier Tuesday afternoon, Williams defended hitting Span leadoff. At night, Span responded with the sixth five-hit game in Nationals history and the best performance of his Washington tenure. In a single game, Span raised his average from .239 to .263 and his on-base percentage from .287 to .308.
“You’re like, ‘Okay, this is what I know I can do. This is what I bring to the table,’ ” Span said. “I haven’t shown it a lot, but this is what I can do.”
Span sparked the Nationals’ seven-run sixth inning with a single and a steal that, along with catcher Bryan Pena’s error, sent him to third base. He ended it with a two-run double to the right-center field gap off lefty reliever Sean Marshall. In between, the Nationals knocked out Cueto and provided Fister an overabundance of support.
Injury delayed Fister’s introduction to Washington nearly two months, and once the meeting arrived Tuesday night, he provided an immediate and complete reveal. Fister worked like he had someplace to be, assailed the strike zone, mowed down hitters, fielded his position, dashed around bases and blinked once, maybe. He seized control and never loosened his grip.
Fister held the Reds to two runs over seven innings and scored the Nationals’ first run on a 270-foot sprint. He settled after the Reds scored once in the first and retired 11 batters in a row at one point. Combined with his gem in Arizona, Fister has allowed three runs in 14 innings over his past two starts.
“It feels like home,” Fister said. “Yeah, it’s my first one here. But it feels like I’ve pitched here before. It’s a comforting feeling.”
Cueto entered as baseball’s best pitcher over the first seven weeks of the season, dominating opponents at a historic rate that went beyond his postage-stamp small 1.25 ERA. He had allowed no more than two runs while pitching at least seven innings in all of his first nine starts. The last pitcher to open a season on such a roll: Harry Krause of the Philadelphia Athletics in 1909.
Cueto fired Span a 92-mph sinker for his first pitch of the game. Span pounced and laced it to left field, the opposite-field liner a positive sign in Williams’s estimation.
“I didn’t plan on doing that until I stepped in the box,” Span said. “I just looked at him, and it was just a feeling that I had. Why not? If I get a good pitch, let’s be aggressive.”
In the third, with Fister on first after he reached on an error, Span dropped a bunt toward third base. Ramon Santiago charged, scooped the ball and hurled a rushed throw. Span would have beaten the play even if the ball had not sailed past Todd Frazier. Fister surprised Span when he zoomed all the way around the bases, and Span sped to third. Anthony Rendon drove him home with a sacrifice fly, and the Nationals had taken a 2-1 lead.
“I got more gratification just disrupting them, getting them to throw the ball away,” Span said. “For me, that’s how I have to take over a game. I can’t take over a game by driving in runs all the time.”
Fister traded zeroes with Cueto until the sixth, when the Nationals knocked him out. Span scored on an RBI single to right by Jayson Werth, who celebrated his 35th birthday. Cueto hit Rendon and Kevin Frandsen with pitches, and both would score. Danny Espinosa broke the game open with a bases-loaded, one-out single, the final blow against Cueto, making it 6-1.
Span stepped to the plate against Marshall after Fister had bunted two runners into scoring position. He smashed a double to the scoreboard, scoring all the runners on Cueto’s account. In 70 innings all season, Cueto had allowed 10 runs. In 51 / 3 innings Tuesday night, he yielded eight.
In the eighth, Span blooped a double to shallow center field and finalized an encouraging night. Span works in the cage and reviews video of his swing daily. In the past week, he had ironed out mechanical aspects of his swing. He sensed an outburst coming.
“We were talking about it the other day,” Werth said. “He’s a streaky player. It’s just a matter of time before he gets hot. You could kind of see him start having good at-bats. His approach is very unique to him. Over the past couple weeks, you could see it building.”
One night alone cannot put the issue to rest for good, and Span understands that. But it can be enough to beat an ace like Cueto. It can be a start, and it can remind him what he is capable of.
“Got to do it again tomorrow,” Span said. “That’s what it’s all about.”