MIAMI — As he digested another loss late Saturday night, an extra-innings gut punch that went wrong in multiple ways and partly obscured another putrid offensive game by his team, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson said he would again make changes to his lineup.
The Nationals entered Sunday’s game having scored four runs in 18 innings in Miami this weekend. In the first six games of their week-long road trip, they averaged 2.3 runs per game. They were 1-5. So Johnson decided to scrap much of his usual configuration.
He moved Bryce Harper into the leadoff spot for the first time in the 20-year-old’s career. He pushed rookie Anthony Rendon back up to the No. 2 spot. He dropped Denard Span into the No. 7 spot, between shortstop Ian Desmond and catcher Wilson Ramos, hitting him anywhere outside the leadoff spot for the first time this season.
The idea: get his highest on-base percentage guys in the No.’s 1 and 2 spots, and see what happens. Harper has an on-base percentage of .372, Rendon .351. Only Jayson Werth’s .362 OBP is even in the conversation with those two.
In the Nationals’ 5-2 win over the Marlins, Span was on base four times, drove in two runs and scored once, while Harper reached base twice and scored once. Rendon doubled twice, driving in the game-tying run with his second.
Johnson said he planned to keep the lineup this way at the start of the second half.
“Everybody seemed to have a little energy in that new lineup,” Johnson said. “The way this is configured, it’s tougher to pitch to our left-handers and you’ve got to go through a couple good right-handed hitters.
“Everybody seems to like hitting in those spots better than the spots that I had them so, my mistake.”
Harper was emphatic about his feelings on hitting leadoff.
“I loved it, I really did,” said Harper, who has primarily hit in the No. 2 (2012) and No. 3 (2013) spots in the Nationals’ order. “I thought just getting in there and getting the ABs that I did. I got six ABs today. That’s awesome. That’s all I can say. I liked doing it. I did it in high school. If he left me there, I’d be absolutely comfortable.”
Span, a leadoff hitter for the majority of his career, understood the move.
“I definitely haven’t been getting the job done,” Span said before the game. “I haven’t felt too comfortable at the plate. Whenever you don’t feel comfortable at the plate, you’re going to swing at pitching you wouldn’t normally swing at. I’ve been more aggressive than I normally would because I’m trying to make something happen. So just all in all, I haven’t felt the way I need to feel, pretty much all season.”
Span is hitting .255 this season with a .313 on-base percentage, and those numbers are dragged down significantly by his struggles against left-handed pitching this year.
A career .276 hitter against lefties, Span is hitting just .144 this season and has a .210 on-base percentage. Against right-handers he is hitting close to .300 at .297 with a .353 on-base percentage.
Still, against left or right, Span admits that he has been almost continuously searching at the plate.
“You can probably look at every single game of mine, and I have a different batting stance or different something working different just about every day,” he said. “I just haven’t felt comfortable.
“It’s no excuse. Just got to get some confidence going. It’ll be fine. The way I look at it, I can’t play any worse than I’ve played. This is the worst I’ve played and I’m hitting .255.”
Span said the shift to the bottom of the order won’t force him into feeling as though he needs to change the kind of hitter he is, but he couldn’t be sure of any potential benefits, either, since he’d almost never hit anywhere but leadoff.
Span has taken 2,618 at-bats as a “leadoff batter,” though it’s something of a misnomer once he takes the first at-bat of the game. Still, in his career he’s done well. He’s a .278 hitter with a .349 on-base percentage. He’s batted seventh in the order only twice. He’s 2-for-7.
As for Harper, who was ejected from Saturday night’s game for arguing balls and strikes, this is his first start ever at the leadoff spot.
Here are the full lineups:
Bryce Harper LF
Anthony Rendon 2B
Ryan Zimmerman 3B
Adam LaRoche 1B
Jayson Werth RF
Ian Desmond SS
Denard Span CF
Wilson Ramos C
Taylor Jordan P
Juan Pierre LF
Placido Polanco 3B
Giancarlo Stanton RF
Marcell Ozuna CF
Derek Dietrich 2B
Adeiny Hechavarria SS
Greg Dobbs 1B
Jeff Mathis C
Henderson Alvarez P