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Span hopes to pick up where he left off

Feb 21, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT

AP AP

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.”

  1. Joe Seamhead - Feb 21, 2014 at 6:53 PM

    Wow, did I get into some spirited discussions on this board regarding Denard Span.

  2. Section 222 - Feb 21, 2014 at 8:20 PM

    Whatever happened to WODL? He was the ultra-critic of Span.

    • unkyd59 - Feb 21, 2014 at 8:48 PM

      Went back to the Morning DJ gig, for the offseason, I think… ;-)

    • Doc - Feb 22, 2014 at 9:34 AM

      Yeah, and wad’ happened to a lot of guys on here??

      Hope we didn’t scare them off!!

      Still lookin’ for Ghost to give us some friendly haunting.

  3. NatsNut - Feb 21, 2014 at 8:49 PM

    And don’t discount the effect of his mom’s hitting advice. ;)

  4. ArVAFan - Feb 21, 2014 at 9:05 PM

    Speaking of moms, Wilson Ramos’ mom was in Viera earlier this week. So she’s OK. We kept the conversation light (mostly about dogs, the rest was her bragging on Wilson), so I didn’t get a sense from her of anything else. But she’s obviously close to all the Venezuelan players.

    • letswin3 - Feb 21, 2014 at 11:38 PM

      I like the “Mom Brag”.

      • Doc - Feb 22, 2014 at 9:31 AM

        Good on Mom for bragging on her son. Willy is too modest to do it himself.

  5. letswin3 - Feb 21, 2014 at 11:44 PM

    Maybe this piece opens the gates again for dialog re hitting coaches and how they do/don’t/can/never will improve hitters. The second half of ’13 saw Span and the Nats as a team improve at the plate. When does Rick Schu enter free agency? Maybe now would be the time to lock him up for a few years … just jokin, but I really enjoyed the debates last season about hitting coaches.

    • NatsNut - Feb 22, 2014 at 5:54 AM

      I do agree with you that hitting coaches can and do matter (as well as manager and all the other coaches), I also think just a change itself can be the catalyst. If I remember correctly, Eckstein had the same effect after that card-playing joker Lenny Harris was fired. Still, whatever it is, I’ll take it.

      It’s why I’m excited about the “crisp” workouts at ST – just cuz I think the change in manager/philosophy itself is already a nice little spark for them and I hope it means a few more wins than otherwise. But I’m also reserving full judgement of Williams until we get into the out years.

  6. Tom - Feb 23, 2014 at 7:17 PM

    It seemed that the biggest change was in his approach. First half he was overly patient and looking for the walk. Second half he, and the team in general, was far more aggressive. This change in approach may have been the biggest influence Schu provided.

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