Williams looking for big things from Span in 2014

VIERA, Fla. - We can talk all we'd like about where Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are going to hit in the batting order this season.

And believe me, there will be plenty of blog posts about those very topics over the next handful of weeks.

But the guy who will set the tone for the Nationals lineup this season is Denard Span, who will be back in the leadoff spot in his second season in D.C.

Span had a shaky 2013 campaign that featured a rough first half of the season and a very strong finish. He hit .338/.375/.459 over the final six weeks, helping to salvage his season and give him something to try and build off of this year. And the Nats are counting on him to set the table and give the big boys behind him - Harper, Werth, Zimmerman and others, however they're ordered - chances to make things happen.

"Opportunities are created by the guys in front of you. Especially RBI opportunities," manager Matt Williams said. "The amount of balls that go out of the park aren't great, as opposed to the amount of at-bats you get. So we have to create those opportunities for those guys in the heart of the order, two through six, if you will. That's how we try to construct the lineup, so we can provide opportunities for the guys who are best at that.

"I think Denard is comfortable now with the National League. I think there's an adjustment period that happens to every player. I think you saw that in the second half last year. He figured out the guys he's facing on a regular basis, started to gain an idea what they're trying to do to get him out. And he had more success. And I think that will continue."

Span has talked numerous times about how the transition from the American League - where he played for his first five years in the big leagues - to the National League was a tough one for him early on, as well as just moving to a new organization and having to get comfortable with a whole new set of teammates and coaches.

Is it a coincidence that he started to perform better from an offensive standpoint later in the season once he'd seen many of the opposing starters a couple times and gotten a feel for the National League? Maybe, but as Williams notes, it certainly doesn't hurt having a familiarity with the guys you're going up against night-in and night-out.

"You see them in interleague (play) some, but it's not like you're facing them 19 times," Williams said. "So he gets to establish a philosophy for what a particular type of team is going to do to him, how they're going to try to get him out. And even further, to evaluate the kind of pitchers he's going to face on a regular basis. It's a learning process anytime you change leagues."

There's more that goes into it than just that familiarity, though. Span was tinkering with his hitting mechanics throughout the season, trying to find something that worked for him. He eventually found it, and those mechanical adjustments combined with a more comfortable feeling in the clubhouse and in the batter's box to lead to the strong numbers.

Williams obviously wasn't around last season so he doesn't know firsthand what tweaks Span made to his swing in order to hit his stride, but he's met with hitting coach Rick Schu and discussed what Span did that allowed him to be successful.

"I talked to Rick about it," Williams said. "Last year, especially early when he came over, he looked like he was a two-piece hitter. He would get his foot down really early and then explode from there. Rick has been working with him about letting that flow a little better. So you'll see that in spring training, where it's a little more of a subtle movement, instead of getting it down early and then using his hands.

"He's working on having that flow a little bit. He looks good. He played really well in the second half of the season, and I see that continuing."

Here's today's quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: "Perfection is unattainable, but the pursuit of perfection is imperative."

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