- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

These are not your 2012 Washington Nationals.

Yes, that team rolled through the National League East like this year’s squad did. And these Nationals may wind up with the same fate — an early exit. As maddening as it can be, the baseball playoffs are a random contest — especially the five-game divisional series.

That said, this 2014 Nationals team is far better equipped to take its place at the craps table.

Obviously, a big difference is the starting pitching. The 2012 Nationals team that faced the St. Louis Cardinals had Edwin Jackson as the No. 3 starter.

He wouldn’t make this Nationals NLDS roster — unless as a pinch hitter, with the presence this time around of Stephen Strasburg, the addition of Doug Fister and the emergence of Tanner Roark.

But starting pitching was hardly the Nationals’ difference-maker in 2012. That staff was second in baseball in 2012. This year’s unit is first.

So let’s look at the lineup of the 2012 team, compared to the one that opens the Division Series on Friday against the San Francisco Giants.

The 2012 series-opening lineup led off with Jayson Werth. This year’s version will lead off with center fielder Denard Span.

We can stop right there.

There may be a number of differences between the 2012 Nationals and this year’s NL East division champions, but the difference maker is Denard Span.

When Matt Williams was hired to manage this club, he declared his intentions to change the way this offense has operated — the way it operated in the 2012 Division Series and the way it operated when it fell short of the postseason last year.

“I will be aggressive,” Williams said. “My natural tendency is to go. I want to steal second base. I want to hit-and-run. I want to go first-to-third. Those are important to me I think we’ve seen that if we can score that extra run, we can be really special. So aggressiveness is key.”

The flaw in the Washington lineup had been its streakiness — and, therefore, its inability to score when the bats went cold. It was often feast or famine, and when it was famine, this team was at a loss about how to create the necessary run in a close game.

When Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo traded pitching prospect Alex Meyer to Minnesota for Span in November 2012, it was to do just that — have a legitimate leadoff hitter to get on base and kick-start the offense when it in a coma.

When the 2013 Nationals struggled in the first half, Span struggled. When the Nationals were 41-40 through the first half, Span batted .263 with a .320 on base percentage and a .358 slugging percentage. In the second half, when Washington posted a 45-36 mark, Span batted .302 with a .357 on base percentage and a .413 slugging percentage.

This year, when Washington stumbled its way to a 42-38 first half record, Span stumbled as well, batting .269 with a .319 on base percentage and a .385 slugging percentage.

As the team ran away from the division with a 54-28 second half record, Span was the engine that drove that runaway tradin — and this was after his teammate, Bryce Harper, left him out of his ideal starting lineup when he envisioned this Nationals team when Ryan Zimmerman made the move to left field.

You can debate who the Nationals 2014 MVP was — Anthony Rendon, Adam LaRoche — but the difference-maker on this team is Denard Span.

Denard Span has meant so much to this team,” ESPN baseball analyst Aaron Boone said on my show “The Sports Fix” on ESPN 980. “In this game today, where offense is at a premium, there are not a lot of clubs that have a legitimate lead off hitter with the on-base ability and speed that Denard Span brings to this team. What a luxury that is.”

That is the kind of luxury that will pay off in playoff baseball, where runs are at a premium — a luxury Washington didn’t have the last time around.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.

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