The Washington Times - September 10, 2013, 06:44PM

NEW YORK — It was probably about a week ago when Denard Span realized just what was going on with him at the plate. The Washington Nationals’ center fielder knew he’d been feeling better at the plate, that he’d been more comfortable and having more success.

One day he noticed on the scoreboard at Nationals Park that he had a pretty good hitting streak going. When it hit 14 games, Span acknowledged “OK, I’ve been swinging the bat pretty good and I’ve got something going.”

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Span extended his hitting streak to 21 games in the third inning on Tuesday night with a double that snuck inside the first base line and into the right field corner in his second at-bat. It continued the longest such stretch of his career, a key in helping to boost his 2013 stats as the Nationals head into the season’s final weeks.

Span is not just getting one hit a night and calling it a day. He entered Tuesday’s game hitting .410 over the course of the streak with seven extra-base hits, two home runs and five walks.

Over that time, Span has raised his average on the season from .258 to .282 — right in line with his career norms. In the first five years of his career, Span was a .284 hitter. And he spent much of the season trying to figure out where that guy had gone. 

“He’s a little more aggressive,” said manager Davey Johnson, who has noticed Span’s less passive approach, particularly after his first at-bat of the night. “He looks to be a little more relaxed. Part of our problem on the whole ball club is we took a lot of pitches… Since he started hitting, everybody in the lineup has been more aggressive. We’re hitting balls earlier in the count instead of hitting a tough pitch with two strikes.

“Last three weeks, I’ve seen him swing at first pitches. I don’t think he did that for the first four months, hardly ever.”

It is not a coincidence, Span said, that his season began to turn around when the Nationals brought in hitting coach Rick Schu in late July. Schu and first base coach Tony Tarasco have helped, and he readily gives both men credit for his success of late.

He’s also swinging less each day — he no longer takes on-field batting practice and is in the cage for more brief sessions than he had been early in the year — a change he said third base coach Trent Jewett helped him make, too.

“After (former hitting coach Rick Eckstein) left, Tony told me a few things he had seen over the previous months — and Rick came and kind of developed a routine for me and I’ve just been sticking to it,” Span said. “This is probably the least amount I’ve swung all year.

“Earlier in the year, Trent, he kind of put things in perspective as far as my whole game. (He said) ‘Defensively, I watch you shag during BP. You take shagging pretty seriously.’ … Maybe 5-10 minutes for one group I’m shagging or taking two or three hard steps and getting my work in and get out of there. But hitting, he would see me go in there for 45 minutes and he was like, ‘You’re probably overworking yourself. You’re confident in your defense and you know what you need to do. Balance it out.’ At the time, I was like: I’m struggling, so whatever. Now that I’ve taken less swings, I kind of understand what he was talking about.”

Span shrugs his shoulders when asked if he’s superstitious about the streak, if he’d prefer not to discuss it as some players do. 

“In the past, I normally don’t even like talking about hitting,” he said. “But I’ve been through so much this year, I’m almost to a point where a lot of it is it just being Sept. 10 and I’m physically and mentally a little worn out. Whatever. If you guys want to talk about it, let’s talk about it.”

But no matter how much longer the streak goes on, Span said this has already been one of the most rewarding seasons of his career as far as growing as a player is concerned.

“Honestly no matter where (my numbers) end up, I can look at it already on Sept. 10 and say this is probably my best season of my career,” he said. “Just considering what I’ve been through. I’ve been through a lot.

“Just ups and downs offensively. New league. New team. Just all the first-time experiences, all the stuff like that. Just to be where I’m at, I can look back and say this is probably the most — even though it’s not done yet, I’ve still got a lot of work to do — but it’s probably one of the most gratifying, so far. I’ll be able to better answer that when the season’s over. I’ve learned a lot about myself, on and off the field.”

So if he goes hitless one of these days?

“I (couldn’t) care less, honestly,” Span said. “I mean, if it ends today, it was fun. I’ve gotten going. That’s the most important thing. A hitting streak is nice, but actually just to get going after beating myself up, personally, is the best feeling.”