When Denard Span showed up to NatsFest last year, he says he walked into the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and immediately felt somewhat out of place.
Span had just been acquired by the Nationals in a trade with the Twins - the only organization he had ever known - two months prior, and had yet to meet the vast majority of his teammates and coaches. The then-28-year-old was plenty friendly and accommodating to fans and reporters that day, but he says it wasn’t too comfortable of an experience.
This year, Span showed up to NatsFest knowing his teammates, team staffers, reporters and even some fans. He laughed, joked around and went with the flow. If he seemed much more at ease this time around, well, it’s because he was.
“It’s been a world of difference,” Span said at NatsFest a week and a half ago. “I look back a year ago and I came to this event, walked in the room and I’m looking around, looking for somebody to talk to. It was a little awkward. But this year, I walked into the room and just being comfortable with the guys, the guys being comfortable with me, as well, it’s definitely a big difference. I’m just looking forward to this year, man, I really am.”
Span feels comfortable not just because of the time he’s now spent in a Nationals jersey, but also because of the way he finished his first season in D.C. Yes, the season as a whole didn’t go as Span would have hoped, as he got off to a slow start and struggled through the middle of June, when his batting average dipped to .251 and his OPS dropped to .646.
But Span finished strong, hitting .321 with a .788 OPS over his final 46 games, giving him renewed confidence that he can play at a very high level and be the type of leadoff hitter that the Nats need.
“I still know that I can play at that level for more than a month and a half, (but) it was a little easier going into the offseason,” Span said. “But like I said, I’m just concentrating on being consistent like that through the course of a season. I look at it, I played good for a month of the season last year, and how I finished, if I can do that for an extended period of time, it can be a good summer for myself and my teammates.”
New manager Matt Williams has talked about wanting to be more aggressive this season in a number of ways, and that includes on the basepaths. Span will likely be one of the main beneficiaries of that increased aggression.
Span stole 20 bases in 26 chances last season, and the most bases that he’s swiped in a single big league season is 26 in 2010. But he has a shot to get up toward that number in 2014, if not top it.
“(Williams and I) had a short conversation down in Orlando at the Winter Meetings, and he told me he wants me to be more aggressive on the bases,” Span said. “He said he wanted me to run more, and I like that. That’s what I want to do. I haven’t been as successful stealing bases in my career, but that’s something that every day I strive to get better at. I will get better. I’ll get more than 20 this year, I’ll tell you that.”
Span has studied some film of Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman, two of the better base stealers the league has ever seen, and has been working with a speed coach to try and make even the slightest improvements that can lead to more steals and a higher stolen base percentage.
“Just trying to improve any way I can,” Span said. “Working on reaction times, little drills, things like that. I’m confident that it’s going to translate over onto the field.”
When Span and the Nats step onto the field for opening day, it will have been six months since they last played a regular season game. But Span thinks that the way he finished last season will carry over to this season, as will the comfortable feeling that he had late in the year. He hopes that will lead to a smoother start to 2014 than the one he had in his debut season with the Nats.
“I think confidence is something that can carry over, as well as the opposite of that confidence,” Span said. “It kind of can go hand in hand. And like I said, I’m very confident right now.”