The moment the ball left Hunter Pence’s bat, the San Francisco Giants outfielder figured he’d just snatched a game from the grips of defeat for his team. Head down, running to first base, Pence thought he had a double and hoped, at the very least, Buster Posey would score the tying run from second base.
Then he heard the roars.
It was the only reason Pence even lifted his head. By the time he did, the final out of the Washington Nationals’ 6-5 victory over the Giants was poking out of center fielder Denard Span’s glove. Flat on his back, right arm in the air, Span held the glove up high for all to see. In it, he held the Nationals’ fifth straight victory.
“He apparently made a spectacular play,” Pence said.
“Unbelievable,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, whose 17th homer of the season got the Nationals’ resurgent offense going in the second inning before Anthony Rendon’s rocket double with the bases loaded notched the big blow in a five-run fourth off Tim Lincecum.
“He’s been amazing all year long. Him being in the American League (until this season), we never really got to see him that much. But he’s the best center fielder I’ve ever seen.”
It took three seconds for Rafael Soriano’s 0-1 slider to go from the barrel of Pence’s bat into the top of Span’s glove. Three seconds.
And Span, who’s proven throughout this season that he is one of the slickest outfielders in the major leagues, was shading the Giants’ right fielder toward right center. He had to go a long ways to end up on the left center field warning track.
“Off the bat, I’m like, ‘Oh (shoot),’” Span said.
“All I know is, it’s in between the two of them,” right fielder Jayson Werth said of Span and left fielder Bryce Harper. “Off the bat, I’m thinking something like, ‘(Shoot).’ Something like that. I looked at D. He was on his horse in a straight line. I looked back up the ball… When he dove, I was thinking he had to be close, or he wouldn’t have dove. And then he caught it. I was as happy as everybody else.”
So many outcomes were carried on that ball that snow-coned inside Span’s glove.
When Jordan Zimmermann had turned the game over to the Nationals’ bullpen in the eighth inning, he’d given them a five-run lead to work with and could feel good about the seven strong innings he’d put up.
He’d battled his mechanics some, having worked with pitching coach Steve McCatty on not rushing his delivery in his last bullpen and felt it was an issue for him in the first four innings on Wednesday, too. The usually efficient Zimmermann had thrown 81 pitches after four. But boosted by a five-run lead after the inning, Zimmermann needed just 31 pitches in his final three frames of work.
“We scored five that inning and (Marco) Scutaro was leading off and got a base hit,” Zimmermann said. “I look over at Desi and he’s like: ‘Pitch like it’s a 1-0 game.’ That’s what I started doing. I kept attacking and it worked out.”
By the time Soriano entered, due to ineffectiveness from Ian Krol and Ryan Mattheus, that lead had been whittled to two — and it could’ve been worse were it not for the work of Nationals’ superb set-up man Tyler Clippard bailing them out.
“I’ve got to get some help in the bullpen,” said manager Davey Johnson. “I can’t keep going to Clip and Sori. We should’ve been able to put that one away.”
Soriano was no sure thing himself. Before he could rip his jersey out for his usual post-save “Untuck,” the Nationals’ closer allowed a leadoff single, a two-out single and a two-out RBI-single to bring the game within one, put the tying run on second and the go-ahead run at first. If Span doesn’t make that catch, instead of his 31st save of the season, he’s saddled with his fifth blown save.
As Span gathered himself, his face breaking into a wide smile, Harper came over screaming in excitement and slapping his teammate repeatedly with his glove. Werth soon joined the party. As they made their way back to the infield handshake line, Span ripped his jersey out from his pants and shouted: “Let’s go home, baby!”
“Normally I take a better route than that, but I was able to get to it,” Span said. “ “I take pride in my defense. Would I like to be hitting .400? Of course. But I love the feeling of taking a hit from somebody or robbing a home run or robbing an extra-base hit.
“That’s been the main thing that’s kept me going (through a down offensive season), I’m going to be honest with you: my defense. If I didn’t have that, if I was a DH or a pinch-hitter, I’d have killed myself, probably, two months ago. But whenever I’m struggling at the plate I try to pick my defense up and try to bring that every day and try to help my team win that way.”
The Nationals’ standing in the playoff picture has changed little over the course of their winning streak. They remain 14 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the division, and 8.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot. But they’re enjoying the run they’re on, for whatever it’s worth.
They certainly enjoyed Wednesday’s and Span’s heroics.
“It’s definitely one way to win a game, that’s for sure,” Werth said. “You got defensive plays like that and walk-off hits, walk-off homers. There’s kind of a parallel there. It’s a big play, however you want to look at it. It saved the game.”