Jul 28, 2014, 6:35 PM EDT
MIAMI — Denard Span has done this before, bounced back from a slow start to a season to finish on a sustained tear at the plate. So even when things weren’t going as well earlier this summer as the hoped they would, prompting some public questioning of his place in the Nationals’ lineup, he used his second-half surge in 2013 to put his mind at ease.
“If anything, I always knew that I had a certain type of toughness about myself,” he said. “But last year, I felt like I showed myself and everybody else what I’m made of. So when I went home for the All-Star break, my mentality coming into the second half was: It’s not over yet. This is the important part. My team needs me. I’m going to try to finish strong.”
So far, so good. Span has been on fire at the plate for several weeks now, entering Monday night’s game against the Marlins with a .375 batting average, .457 on-base percentage and .882 OPS in July. Add 16 runs scored in 20 games, five successful stolen bases in as many attempts and his usual stellar play in center field, and Span has quickly quieted the skeptics.
“Did I hear it? Of course,” said Span of the chatter that he should be dropped out of the leadoff spot, or out of the lineup altogether when Bryce Harper returned from the disabled list. “But I’m confident in my own ability. Whether there are critics or not, I know what I’ve done in this game. Even though it was early on in my career, I know what I’m capable of doing. I’m always going to believe in myself. I’m always going to be my toughest critic. So no matter what anyone else says, they’ll never be tougher than I am on myself.”
Span’s surge has especially been notable during this road trip. He collected a 4-hit game Wednesday at Colorado, then followed that up with another 4-hit game Friday in Cincinnati. Then for good measure, he drew four walks during Sunday’s win over the Reds, a performance that brought his season on-base percentage all the way up to .344.
“I just think he’s … seeing the ball good,” manager Matt Williams said. “Any time a player goes on a hitting streak, they’re seeing the ball good. That’s an indication of him being calm and at ease at the plate. He’s certainly letting the ball travel. We’ve seen a lot of balls go the other way. That’s an indication of him waiting on the ball and hitting it the other way, which in turn allows him to see the ball longer. And if he sees something he doesn’t like, then he’s taking it. Those are all really good things, especially from your leadoff guy. It’s good anywhere, but especially from the guy who’s setting your offense in motion. He’s playing really well.”
All of a sudden, Span’s .344 OBP ranks eighth among all major leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances leading off this season.
Really, though, this is a continuation of Span’s late-season showing in 2013, when he posted a 29-game hitting streak from mid-August through mid-September. Total up his stats over the last calendar year, and you get a .291 batting average, .341 on-base percentage, 92 runs scored, 36 doubles, nine triples and 28 stolen bases in 32 attempts.
Span saw late last season how he could turn things around and knew he could do it again. His manager never saw signs of doubt from his center field this season.
“He never shows anything. Ever,” Williams said. “He can go out there and go 4-for-4 or 0-for-4, it never affects his defense, it never affects the way he prepares, or the way he plays the game. Those are all great traits, great qualities to have. And that’s probably confidence from last year, that in the second half he was able to turn it on. It can happen, and it can come quickly.”
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