Denard Span works relentlessly on his defense, and he was frustrated after misplaying a couple of chances at the wall during the Nationals’ series this week against the Cardinals.
So Thursday afternoon, before the Nats and Reds opened their four-game set, Span asked first base coach Tony Tarasco to hit a few up against the wall at Nationals Park so he could get more practice making that kind of play.
“I told him to come out there and just hit me some balls,” Span said. “I kind of practiced robbing some home runs and kind of getting familiar with the warning track and the wall.”
Wouldn’t you know, the exact scenario Span had practiced came to fruition in the sixth inning of Saturday’s game, as Span found himself sprinting toward left-center in pursuit of a long drive by the Reds’ Joey Votto.
Span didn’t know if Votto’s ball was headed out — based on replay, it didn’t appear so — but he positioned himself and leaped to make a fantastic catch while crashing into the wall in front of the Reds’ bullpen.
An impressive play by any measure, but the one he made the following inning was even better. With the bases full of Reds and a 6-3 lead suddenly in danger, Span was shading Reds shortstop Zack Cozart toward right-center with Tyler Clippard on the mound. Cozart, a right-handed hitter, sent a rocket toward left-center.
“When he hit it,” said Nats manager Davey Johnson, “I thought that might score three.”
Said Clippard: “At first it looked like he was shaded a little bit right-center and it looked like he had to cover a lot of ground, so I wasn’t sure if he was going to get there or not. But Denard covers a lot of ground out there and he just cruised under it like it was no big deal.”
It was a big deal to Span, who dubbed the Cozard play his favorite of the two highlight-reel efforts — mainly because he didn’t know right away if he’d get it.
“At first I wasn’t sure,” he said. “But I got a good jump. I knew I had a good jump but I just wasn’t sure initially how far over in the left-center gap it was. After about four or five steps I could tell that I was catching up with it.”
You never know what will happen if one or both of those plays isn’t made, but Span saved multiple runs from a team that was starving for them.
“We were two hits away if it were not for Span, for tying the game up or even going ahead,” Reds manager Dusty Baker told reporters. “Joey’s and [Cozart], those were two really good plays. Very rarely do you see two web gems in one game — and those were.”
Span also collected a pair of hits and drove in a run Saturday, but neither he nor anyone else was interested in talking about what happened at the plate.
“That’s unbelievable,” he said. “I’d rather do that any day of the week just to help my pitchers. I feel like I’m a defender first, and that usually picks me up offensively.”
Tarasco said after the game that Span is “tenacious” about his defense, always working on something. But he was quick to dismiss the impact of those pregame exercises Thursday in the plays his pupil made Saturday.
“That kid made a great play today,” Tarasco said. “He made a couple good plays. That ain’t got nothing to do with the drills. He just wanted the baseball today.”