Feb 21, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
VIERA, Fla. — For all the discussion of Matt Williams’ lineup decisions — whether Bryce Harper hits third or fifth, whether Jayson Werth hits second or fourth, etc. — the one spot in the Nationals batting order that isn’t up for grabs might also be the spot with the most question marks.
Denard Span will hit leadoff, of that there is no doubt. But which Span will show up come Opening Day: The guy who struggled throughout the first half of 2013, or the guy who delivered baseball’s longest hitting streak late in the season?
The Nationals are banking on the latter, believing Span’s strong finish was an indication of things to come.
“I think there’s an adjustment period that happens to every player,” manager Matt Williams said. “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.”
There’s certainly some merit to the notion that it simply took Span time to adjust and get more comfortable to his first season in Washington, not to mention his first season in the National League.
Through his first 71 games, Span hit a disappointing .251, his on-base percentage languishing at .306. If he stepped to the plate four times on a given night, it felt like he rolled over weak grounders to the right side of the infield three times.
And then, things began to click. Over his final 87 games, Span hit .300, his OBP rising to .343. Did increased comfort correlate with increased offense?
“I think so,” he said. “I think that played a part. I don’t want to say that was the sole reason for the way I played at the start of last year. But yeah, just being more comfortable and making a few plays later in the season and seeing my teammates rally behind me made things go better towards the end of the season.”
There were actual mechanical changes that Span made along the way that helped. Rick Schu, who took over as hitting coach in midseason, worked with Span on making his swing smoother, removing a gap between his front-leg plant and actual swinging motion.
“Last year, especially early when he came over, he looked like he was a ‘two-piece’ hitter,” Williams said. “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; 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.”
Combine better mechanics with a better frame of mind, and Span enters 2014 feeling much better about himself than he did midway through his first season in D.C.
“I was kicking myself in the butt for not getting it going sooner,” he said. “But I was thankful for how I finished. I’ve always been taught that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. So it was good for me to finish strong.”
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