- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 19, 2015

A familiar face walked into the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse Saturday morning, smiling as he strolled toward the far end of the room. “Well, look who it is,” Jayson Werth said, a smile emerging from his beard.

Denard Span set his backpack at his locker before Werth wrapped him in a bearhug. The 31-year-old center fielder was back at Nationals Park after a brief minor-league rehabilitation assignment and expected to be in the lineup on Sunday. When he rejoined the Nationals for their series finale against the Philadelphia Phillies, their everyday lineup was nearly intact, and a sense of regularity was beginning to return.

“It felt like it was like old times,” Span said.

Nearly six weeks to the day after undergoing abdominal surgery, Span went 1-for-5 at the plate in Washington’s 4-1 win over Philadelphia. He looped a single to right field in the fifth inning and scored from first on a double by Ian Desmond, accelerating around third base and feeling out of breath by the time he touched the plate.

“It felt good to get on my horses like that,” he said with a smile. “It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to do that.”

On a blustery Sunday afternoon, Span gave the Nationals a steady presence at the top of their lineup and a sure-handed defender in center field. The ripples of his return, however, went well beyond the game itself. There was genuine happiness that followed Span into the clubhouse, a sense of both excitement and calm that comes with a once-broken lineup nearly whole again.

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“It was normal. More normal today,” manager Matt Williams said. “With Denard at the top of it in center field, it feels like normalcy, so it’s a good feeling. Michael [Taylor] played really well when he was here, but today was a step back to where we had planned it all along.”

As Span prepared to make his first start of the season, Taylor packed a gray backpack and walked to the home dugout, where he shared a conversation with third base coach Bobby Henley. The 24-year-old hit .271 through the first 12 games of the season and ranked second on the team with 13 hits, 24 total bases, two home runs and eight RBI. He proved himself worthy of a roster spot, but the team felt it was best for him to return to Triple-A Syracuse, where he can start every day and receive regular at-bats.

“Any time you can get to the level you want to play at and see some pitching, get some at-bats, I think that definitely helps,” Taylor said of his performance with the Nationals. “There were some days when it kind of got away from me, but I think that’s normal. Something I’ll continue to work on, being more consistent barrelling up balls and things like that.”

Taylor was unanimously praised by his teammates, with Span going so far as to say, “I think he’s going to be an all-star. Point blank. Period.” General manager Mike Rizzo said he “handled himself brilliantly” in his second trip to the major leagues.

All parties were excited for Span’s return, however. There was a roar from the crowd when he was introduced at the beginning of the game, and an even louder ovation when he stepped to the plate for the first time. After a lengthy rehabilitation process that featured two surgeries over four month, a process that Span said “was trying on my faith,” he cherished those cheers.

“Just priceless, man,” he said. “These fans have treated me so gracious through the ups [and] downs since I’ve been here for the last three years. Just a warm feeling. When I came out and hearing the fans’ excitement and even my teammates’ — you could just tell the glow in their face, and it was genuine, and happy to see me back. It just means a lot.”

Span and Werth each began the season on the 15-day disabled list, and each returned to the lineup this week. Werth met the team in Philadelphia last Sunday and started in Boston the following day. Span’s return gave the Nationals their full complement of outfielders for the first time this season.

“The guys that were here to fill in, they did a great job. They left it all out there on the field, so you can’t ask for more,” right-hander Stephen Strasburg said. “But in the same sense, when you see the same guys around you and you get that familiarity, guys don’t feel like they have to press as much.”

The Nationals have a day off on Monday and will be back at Nationals Park on Tuesday to begin a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals. When they return, Span will be there, penciled in at the top of the lineup and patrolling center field, with everything seemingly back to normal.



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