After a rocky start in D.C., Span feeling like himself again

We’re getting to that time of year where scoreboard watching becomes a pretty big part of the nightly routine for major league teams still in playoff contention.

Teams like the Nationals can talk all they want about how they’re just focused on taking care of their own business. They can say that their concern is just on each game that they play, and that they aren’t worried about what’s going on around them.

Part of that certainly might be true. The Nats can’t get caught up looking in the big picture. They just need to take things one game at a time and worry about winning that night’s game.

But regardless of how well the Nats play over the final 23 games of their schedule, they’ll still need some help from the Reds to wind up postseason-bound. And that’s why after their 3-2 win over the Phillies last night, a number of Nats players were seated in front of their lockers, keeping their eyes on the Reds-Cardinals game that was in extra innings.

The Cardinals ended up pulling out the win in 16 innings, pushing the Nats to within 6 1/2 games of the Reds. Cincinnati still has one more game left with St. Louis, then will host the scalding-hot Dodgers for three over the weekend. The Nats, meanwhile, get a day off today and then will have three against the Marlins, who are currently 34 games under .500.

I’m not sayin’ a comeback is in order. I’m just sayin’.

Denard Span increased his hitting streak to 17 games with a single leading off last night’s game, giving him the longest hitting streak of any Nationals player this season.

During that 17-game streak, Span is hitting .406 with a .453 on-base percentage. He has a homer, two triples and three doubles in that span (no pun intended), has drawn five walks and stolen two bases.

In essence, this has looked much more like the Denard Span the Nats felt like they were getting this offseason when they acquired the speedy outfielder in a trade with the Twins. Asked about his recent hot stretch, Span didn’t want to get into specifics about what has started to improve from a mechanical or approach perspective, saying he tries to avoid thinking about that stuff. But he clearly is in a better place of late.

“(It’s) no secret that I’m feeling OK right now,” says Span, who feels like he really started clicking during the Kansas City series two weeks ago. “Even before (Kansas City) I was feeling like I was getting to where I needed to be, but I think the game where I hit the homer and went 4-for-5, just, I felt something. And ever since then I’m kind of just trying to mimic that feeling and just stay with my same routine I’ve been doing for the last month or so. ...

“I just think you just dumb it down. You’re not analyzing every little thing as opposed to when you’re not feeling good. You’re in the video room or in the cage trying to tweak things or trying to figure out what’s going on. When you’re going good, it seems like everything’s just simplified and your timing, everything’s slowed down.”

Span was pretty hard on himself earlier in the season when he was in the midst of his offensive struggles. After a 2-for-29 stretch in mid-June, Span’s average dipped to a season-low .251, and he admitted that he was getting pretty frustrated. Not only was he not playing to the level he knew he was capable of, but Span felt like he was letting his new teammates down.

“In Minnesota, everybody knew me,” Span said. “If I got off to a bad start, they’d kind of be like, ‘You know what, we know you’ll be fine. He’s done it before, we’ve seen him do it before.’ When you come into a new team where nobody’s seen you when you’re going good, the first thing you show them is that you’re not playing good, it’s kind of, it could be a little much. I learned a lot, and it’s only going to make me a better player. I think it is already.”

Another tough aspect for Span has been his season-long struggles against left-handed pitching. Span is batting just .194/.255/.239 off lefties this season, compared to a .307/.355/.428 line against righties.

A lot of left-handed hitters have issues hitting southpaws, but what’s led to Span’s frustration is that his career numbers off lefties are pretty darn good. Span’s career slash line against left-handed pitching is .278/.357/.373, pretty much in line with his career numbers against righties. But because of his inability to produce against lefties this season, manager Davey Johnson has sat Span against southpaws on a fairly consistent basis over the last handful of weeks.

“I hit lefties, man. I always have,” Span said. “You check my stats. I normally don’t say that but I’ve hit them my whole career in the big leagues. I don’t mind playing against lefties. I want to play every day. I see myself as an everyday player. This year I haven’t done it, but you look over the track record I have and I think that’s one of the reasons they brought me here as well. They didn’t bring me here to platoon.”

They sure didn’t, and because of the way Span has turned things around lately, Johnson said yesterday he plans on playing Span on pretty much an everyday basis from here on out.

Span dishes out credit to a handful of people for helping him get turned around offensively: hitting coach Rick Schu, whose laid-back style of coaching involves blasting music during work in the cages (Span prefers the Jay-Z channel on Pandora); outfield coordinator Tony Tarasco, who has given Span pointers along the way; and Span’s mom, Wanda Wilson, who sends text messages to her son at times, offering her own tips.

This recent hot streak has gotten Span up to a respectable season line of .278/.329/.379., and combined with his stellar defense in center, Span feels like he’s finally playing like himself.

“It’s been good just to show them, my teammates, some of the fans what I’m capable of doing,” Span said. “It’s big. I put a lot of pressure on myself early in the year just to be able to show them that not even so much that I’m doing good in this streak, but just to show them the type of player, man, that I am as far as, I’m not going to give up. I’m going to keep grinding. That’s how I’ve always been as a person.”

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