Span saves the day for Nationals

Span saves the day for Nationals
August 15, 2013, 1:00 am
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Span flashes the leather, bails out bullpen

The Nationals went out of their way to acquire Denard Span over the winter, first and foremost, because they believed he would fill a much-needed void atop their lineup.

In that regard, Span's first season in Washington has been a disappointment. He hasn't reached base enough for a leadoff hitter, and when he has reached, he hasn't run the bases as well as hoped.

Which isn't to suggest Span hasn't been valuable to the Nationals in 2013, especially in the field. Teammates and fans alike have marveled all year at the center fielder's ability to track down balls few others would even approach. And Wednesday night, everyone in attendance at Nationals Park saw firsthand how one of baseball's best defensive outfielders can literally win a game with his glove.

With one mad dash from his position shaded toward right-center field to a point just shy of the warning track in left-center, Span robbed Hunter Pence of a double that would have completed a ninth-inning rally by the Giants against Rafael Soriano. Instead, by diving to snag Pence's line drive and holding the ball ever-so-carefully in his glove, Span recorded the final out of a wild, 6-5 Nationals victory and afforded 30,657 fans and a dugout full of anxious teammates the opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief and then offer a roar of approval.

"Whew," manager Davey Johnson said. "Heck of a play."

"Unbelievable," shortstop Ian Desmond added. "He's been amazing all year long. Him being in the American League, we never really got to see him that much. But, best center fielder I've ever seen."

Span has wowed the Nationals all season with his immense range and ability to read balls off the bat so well, he rarely needs to dive to make catches. But this one required some extra effort.

"Off the bat, I'm like: 'Oh sh...'" he said, admitting he took one step in and had to reverse course. "I just put my head down, and when I looked up it seemed like I had gained ground on it. That's when I said I'm gonna have a chance to reach for it."

Span still had to dive back and to his right, then hold onto the ball (which nearly squirted out of his glove) for dear life as he crashed to the ground. He raised his right arm in the air, ball still in glove, and then trotted toward the center of the diamond where teammates couldn't wait to congratulate him for his game-saving play.

"Off the bat, it looked like it was a catchable ball," said reliever Tyler Clippard, who was watching on TV in the clubhouse. "But when the camera got on the outfield, we noticed he was playing right-center. So we were like: 'Oh, god.' We were all kinda praying that he got there, and he did. He made an unbelievable catch. That was a huge win for us."

Huge, because it prevented the Giants from rallying from five runs down over the final two innings to steal a victory. And huge, because it locked up the Nationals' fifth straight win, matching their longest streak of a trying season and helping reduce the sting of last week's sweep at the hands of the Braves

They still haven't made up much ground in the standings — they trail Atlanta by 14 games in the NL East, Cincinnati by 8 1/2 games in the NL Wild Card race — but they're playing better baseball. And, perhaps most importantly, they're not paying attention to the out-of-town scoreboard.

"I feel like we hit rock bottom, and we're like: 'Alright, let's just go out there and play and not worry about what's going on and who is winning what games and focus on ourselves,'" Clippard said. "Unfortunately we did lose three to the Braves. But it let us take a step back and be like: 'Alright guys, let's just play baseball and see what happens.' And that's what we're doing right now, and it's a lot more fun that way these last five games."

Win No. 5 in this streak didn't need to be such a tense affair. The Nationals led 6-1 entering the top of the eighth, thanks to a five-run explosion way back in the bottom of the second and seven gritty innings from Jordan Zimmermann. But a bullpen that has been made over this season and still is having trouble locking down games made things far more interesting than Johnson would have preferred.

Ian Krol and Ryan Mattheus combined to allow three runs in the eighth, forcing Clippard to come in and bail them out with back-to-back strikeouts.

"I've got to get some help in the bullpen," Johnson said. "I can't keep going to Clip and Sori. We should've been able to put that one away."

Soriano entered for the ninth with a two-run lead in hand but put himself in a jam, allowing a leadoff single to Hector Sanchez, an RBI single to Brandon Belt and then another base hit to Buster Posey, leaving the tying run on second, the go-ahead run on first and Pence at the plate with the game now on the line.

Pence hammered Soriano's 0-1 slider to left-center, and in the three seconds that transpired before Span tracked it down, hope appeared lost for the Nationals. Then the sure-footed center fielder completed his highlight-reel play, and now those bullpen struggles were a mere footnote to a victory by the home ballclub.

Afterward, Span was praised throughout the clubhouse from teammates and coaches who understand the impact he has made in his first season in D.C. Even if his batting average isn't up to par.

"I take pride in my defense," Span said. "Would I like to be hitting .400? Of course. But I love the feeling of taking a hit from somebody, or robbing a home run or robbing an extra-base hit. There's no better feeling than being able to do that, especially like tonight."