What’s a good leadoff man worth? How much difference does it make if the guy atop a team’s lineup is productive or not?
For the Nationals, it appears to mean everything. Put simply: When Denard Span does well, the Nats do well. When he doesn’t, they don’t.
“It sets up everything,” teammate Jayson Werth said. “When you get your leadoff guy on base and having good at-bats and grinding out at-bats, working the pitcher … when he’s going good, he doesn’t give an at-bat away. If that’s your leadoff guy, that just sets up the rest of the lineup.”
Never was that more obvious than Tuesday, when the Nationals rode Span’s career-best, 5-for-5 night to a stunning takedown of the previously indomitable Johnny Cueto in a 9-4 victory over the Reds.
Span was all over the place making contributions, in all sorts of ways. He singled three times (once via bunt), doubled twice, scored two runs, drove in two more, stole a base and helped force two errors by Cincinnati’s defense.
“For me, that’s how I have to take over a game,” he said. “I can’t take over a game by just driving in runs all the time. I can sometimes. But my way of taking over a game is by letting my athleticism do the talking for me.”
Span hasn’t been able to take over as many games as he — or the Nationals — would have liked so far this season. He entered Tuesday with a .239 batting average and .287 on-base percentage, the latter number the worst among all qualifying MLB leadoff hitters.
Before the game, manager Matt Williams offered up a strong defense of Span remaining as his leadoff man, citing not the overall numbers but his ability on any given night to do something that makes a difference.
Then the 30-year-old went out and delivered with his best performance in two seasons with the Nationals, one the club hopes is a precursor of things to come.
“He started a really good streak in the second half of last year, so certainly it can get him going,” Williams said. “It really doesn’t mean much other than tonight, though. He’s still got to prepare and do all the things that he does every day to go out and play. But sure, it’s a special night for him.”
How special? Well, over the course of 3 hours and 3 minutes, Span raised his batting average 24 points and his on-base percentage 21 points. At .263 and .308, he’s still not producing as well as you’d like a leadoff hitter to produce long-term, but he believes he has turned a corner in recent days.
“This is what I bring to the table,” Span said. “I haven’t shown it a lot, but this is what I can do. Now it’s just about being consistent with it, doing it on a more-consistent basis.”
There’s no disputing how much the Nationals need Span to start doing this on a day-in, day-out basis. Consider this: Span’s offensive slash line in Nats win this season is .369/.413/.560. In their losses, it’s .145/.188/.145.
Point is, a good leadoff hitter can make all the difference.