After missing 40 games due to back spasms, Denard Span finally returned to action, batting leadoff and playing center field in Washington’s 8-3 victory over the San Diego Padres on Tuesday night. Even though Span didn’t do anything special in the field or at the plate, going 0-for-4 with a walk, just the mere fact that he played seemed to give the Nationals -- and their fans -- a boost.
When Span stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning, the crowd of 34,000-plus at Nationals Park gave him a 20-second standing ovation, an indication of just how much the seven-year veteran hitter means to the team. Prior to Tuesday, the Nats were 35-24 with Span in the starting lineup, 27-37 without him. Since Span came to D.C. in 2013, Washington’s winning percentage with Span in the lineup is .545 (244-203). Without him, it’s .409 (36-52).
Span is not the only regular who has missed action this year. Earlier this season, the Nationals played 23 consecutive games without him, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth. Combined, that foursome has missed 256 games this season. Still, the team played well enough that, when Rendon became the first of the quartet to return on July 25th, the team was nine games over .500 and leading the National League East by three games. But in the three weeks that followed, and despite getting Zimmerman and Werth back just three days after Rendon, the Nats dropped 15 of 22 games and found themselves in second place, 4 1/2 games behind the Mets.
Even though Washington has rebounded in the past week, winning four of its past six, the addition of Span to the lineup was a welcome addition.
“To have everyone back and see that is nice,” said Zimmerman, whose sixth-inning grand slam off Padres reliever Bud Norris broke what had been a 4-2 game wide open. “It doesn’t mean we automatically score runs. We’ve still gotta go out there with a good approach, but it’s nice to have everybody.”
The fans in D.C. agreed. Besides giving Span that standing O in the first, they also demanded a curtain call from Zimmerman following his big hit. And the Nats’ first baseman gladly obliged, popping his head out of the dugout and tipping his hat.
Those moments weren’t lost on Matt Williams. “Good atmosphere,” said the Washington skipper. “It’s been a long season for a lot of those guys, not being able to play.”
Of course, having Stephen Strasburg on the mound -- another key National who has missed significant time this season -- didn’t hurt, either. The right-hander allowed just two hits and a walk over six innings, while whiffing seven. After allowing a second-inning homer to Jedd Gyorko, Strasburg finished his outing by retiring 15 Padres in a row. In four starts since returning from the DL, Strasburg now has a 32/3 K/BB ratio over 26 innings, and has posted a 0.65 WHIP.
You could argue that Tuesday’s result doesn’t really mean that much. That the Padres, who came to town two games under .500 and in fourth place in the NL West, are a team the Nationals should beat, especially at home. But the reality is that San Diego has been playing much better lately, having won 9 of its past 12 games while batting .285 over that stretch, the third-best mark in the majors. And they had their ace, James Shields, on the mound. Still, the Nats won handily.
Even though Washington didn’t gain any ground on first place New York, which beat the Phillies, 6-5, Tuesday’s win suggested that, with six games remaining against the Mets, the NL East is still up for grabs. Especially if the Nationals can keep running their projected Opening Day lineup out there.
“If I had money, which I do,” said Span before the game, “I would put it on us.”