PHILADELPHIA — There were times, earlier this season, when Denard Span drove himself crazy trying to figure out what was wrong. Why wasn’t he feeling comfortable at the plate? Why were his numbers down from his career norms? Why wasn’t he hitting left-handed pitching the way he had so consistently in the past?
“When you’re not going good, I’m driving myself nuts,” Span said Wednesday. “I can’t sleep, I’m looking at video on my iPod at night.”
That has not been an issue for the Washington Nationals’ center fielder of late. Span is hitting .313 with a .349 on-base percentage with a .431 slugging percentage since the All-Star break. And during his current 16-game hitting streak that dates back to Aug. 17, Span is hitting .415 with a .457 on-base percentage and a .569 slugging percentage.
That comfort he searched for during so much of the season? He seems to have found it.
“(It was) probably around the Kansas City series (two weeks ago),” Span said of when he felt like himself again. “Even before that I was feeling like I was getting to where I needed to be but I think the game where I hit the homer and went 4-for-5 (on Aug. 25) I just felt something. And ever since then I’m kind of just trying to mimic that feeling and just stay with my same routine I’ve been doing for the last month or so.”
It has been a difficult first year in Washington for Span, who was acquired for top pitching prospect Alex Meyer in the offseason. His defense has been terrific on nightly basis, but he admits he wanted to make a strong first impression when he arrived and in the first part of his season he pressured himself to do so.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself this year,” Span said, crediting hitting coach Rick Schu and first base Tony Tarasco as integral in helping him improve. “Just coming into a whole new atmosphere and new place where nobody knows you, (it’s tough). In Minnesota, everybody knew me. If I got off to a bad start, they’d kind of be like, ‘You know what, we know you’ll be fine, he’s done it before, we’ve seen them do it before.’ When you come into a new team where nobody’s seen you when you’re going good, and the first thing you show them is that you’re not playing good, it could be a little much.
“I learned a lot and it’s only going to make me a better player. I think it is already… (And) it’s been good just to show them, my teammates, some of the fans what I’m capable of doing. It’s big. I put a lot of pressure on myself early in the year just to be able to show them that not even so much that I’m doing good in this streak, but just to show them the type of player — and man — that I am as far as, I’m not going to give up. I’m going to keep grinding. That’s how I’ve always been as a person.”
Now he’ll head into the batting cages early with Schu, toss on a Jay-Z station on Pandora Radio and get to work for about 20 minutes. Schu keeps it loose, Span said, and whatever they’ve been doing has been clicking for him.
One area in which Span struggled, particularly early in the season, was against left-handed pitching. But that was a significant change from his track record. Span had never had trouble with left-handed pitching before coming to D.C. He hit .301 with a .374 on-base percentage against them in 2012 with the Twins. This year, he’s hitting .195/.257/.241 against lefties.
How solid has he been in his career against lefties? Even with this year’s numbers rolled in, his career line against left-handed pitching is .278/.357/.374.
Manager Davey Johnson has recently been sitting Span, at times, against left-handed pitching, but Span takes umbrage with the idea that he cannot hit lefties anymore.
“I hit lefties,” Span said. “I always have. You check my stats. I normally don’t say that but I’ve hit them my whole career in the big leagues. I don’t mind playing against lefties. I want to play every day. I see myself as an everyday player. This year I haven’t done it, but you look over the track record I have and I think that’s one of the reasons they brought me here as well. They didn’t bring me here to platoon. I think I’ve gotten better over the course of the season as well.”
That is true, and to that point, Johnson said Wednesday he no longer plans to sit Span against left-handers, so impressed with his recent improvements and happy to see him performing the way he has of late.
“I like where he’s at now,” Johnson said. “I probably won’t be doing anything with him against left-handers now.”
Span declined to say whether or not he feels his recent performance can make up for the disappointment he felt in himself early in the year, noting that there is still a month remaining in the Nationals’ season. For now, he’s just going to ride this thing out.
“When you’re going good it seems like everything’s just simplified,” Span said. “Everything’s slowed down.”