PHILADELPHIA — With Denard Span struggling to hit left-handed pitching, Nationals manager Davey Johnson decided to bench his starting center fielder tonight against the Phillies' Cole Hamels, plugging the newly acquired Scott Hairston into Span's standard leadoff spot.
Span is putting up strong numbers against right-handers (.305 batting average, .355 on-base percentage) this season, but those numbers plummet when he faces lefties (.154, .222).
Johnson doesn't necessarily intend to turn the Span/Hairston combo into a true righty/lefty platoon, but he believes the mere thought of the two sharing time could play to his advantage.
"I think [Span] will come out of it, but also I think it will send a message around the league that I will use Hairston in his spot," Johnson said. "It also causes some problems for the other managers. When they go to their bullpen in a lefty situation, I might use Hairston. That prevents them from doing that and enables Spanny to hit. So it just opens up more options and creates matchup problems for the other managers."
Hairston, acquired late Sunday night from the Cubs, historically has hit left-handers well (.268 average, .500 slugging percentage, .818 OPS). He also has owned Hamels during his career, entering tonight's game with 12 hits (five of them homers) in 30 at-bats against the Phillies lefty.
With that in mind, and not wanting to shake up the rest of his lineup too much, Johnson decided to have Hairston take over Span's leadoff spot. It's not an entirely uncommon position for Hairston, who had led off 99 previous times in his career, though not since 2011 with the Mets.
"I don't know if comfort's the word, but I'm OK with it," the 33-year-old said. "I think when it matters the most is the first at-bat of the game. After that, it really doesn't come into play as much. I just try to have a really good at-bat when I'm leading off. I know I haven't in a while, but for the most part, I don't change my approach because I've learned that I do better when I don't think about it as much. Just go out and try to get on base."
Though Hairston is taking Span's place in the lineup, he's not taking his spot in the field. With Hairston in left field, Bryce Harper is sliding over to center field for the first time this season. Johnson's only concern about that move was the status of Harper's left knee, but the 20-year-old assured him he's fine.
"I talked to him yesterday," Johnson said. "I said: 'Harp, you think your legs are good enough to play center field?' 'Oh yeah, yeah, I'm ready.' He likes center field. He can run around. He likes that. I don't have a problem playing him."