Sep 27, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals center fielderDenard Span
(2) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a run against the Miami Marlins during the fifth inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit:Brad Mills
-USA TODAY Sports
You can say what you want about Matt Williams’s decision to pull Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth inning of Game 2. You can say what you want about Tanner Roark giving up that homer in the 18th. As big as those moments were, neither of those are the reason the Nationals lost the game.
Regardless of how good your pitchers are or how good your defense is or what decisions your manager makes, it’s simply impossible to win a baseball game if you’re not hitting.
During the first two games of the NLDS, the Nationals have combined for three runs on 15 hits over 27 miserable innings. Averaged out over nine innings, the Nationals are trying to win games by scoring one run on five hits each time.
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The offense has been so bad that even the team’s pitching, which is, by far, the Nationals’ greatest asset, hasn’t been able to make a difference in the first two games. Don’t get me wrong, Nationals pitchers have been fantastic over the first two games, holding the Giants to just five runs in 27 innings. But that means nothing. You could have a rotation of Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan, but if you don’t score runs, you’re not going to win the game.
But how can an offense that finished third in the NL in runs and outscored their opponents by 131 runs during the regular season suddenly go dormant in the playoffs? While you could point to the struggles of the middle of the order, there’s one player in particular who has helped turn one of the best lineups in the game into an NLDS bust. That player is Denard Span.
Span was arguably the Nationals’ MVP during the regular season, hitting .302 while setting single-season team records with 184 hits and 84 multi-hit games. The speedy center fielder finished fifth in the NL with 31 stolen bases and 94 runs, while finishing sixth in batting average.
In the postseason, however, Span has been absolutely atrocious, going 0 for 11 with a walk and looking lost at the plate each time. Not only has Span’s bat been dormant in the series, but he’s also choked in key situations for the Nationals.
Friday night, Span flew out softly with a runner on second and no outs in the sixth inning. Last night, Span grounded into an inning-ending double play to kill a possible game-winning rally for the Nationals in the bottom of the 10th. Granted, Span is a leadoff hitter and not an RBI man. But there’s no doubt a measly hit from the team’s all-time single-season leader in that category would’ve changed the course of both games.
Throughout the course of the season, Span has been the catalyst for the Nationals’ offense. When the offense struggled mightily during the team’s 42-38 first half, Span struggled as well, batting .269 with a .319 on base percentage and a .385 slugging percentage.
Not surprisingly, when the Nationals posted an impressive 54-28 second half record, Span was one of the best hitters on the planet, batting .346 with a .403 on base percentage and a .459 slugging percentage in 257 plate appearances after the All-Star break.
Needless to say, the Nationals’ offensive success depends heavily on the success of their leadoff hitter. Span is one of the main reasons why the Nationals are even playing in October, but he’s also one of the main reasons why the team is struggling to score runs against the Giants.
If the Nationals want to have any chance of bringing the NLDS back to Nationals Park for Game 5, they’ll need Span to return to his second half self, or at least get a hit or two Monday afternoon in San Francisco.
But as bad as he’s been, he may be on the verge of turning things around. Span put together his best at bat of the series his last time up in Game 2, forcing San Francisco’s hard-throwing reliever Hunter Strickland to throw nine pitches before grounding out to first base.
We won’t know for sure if Span is reverting to his old self until he steps into the batters box on Monday. For all we know, he could go 4-4 with four doubles. Or he could continue his miserable postseason and doom any chance the Nationals have of extending the series.
One thing’s for certain, as goes Denard Span, so go the Nationals.