NEW YORK — He had already come back from two abdominal surgeries in three months, then a sore knee that kept him out of a couple of games last week. And now Denard Span was trying to play through a bad back that had sidelined him from Tuesday night’s series opener against the Yankees and left him a question mark for Wednesday’s matinee until about 90 minutes before first pitch.
Span did manage to play, battling his way through 11 long innings that included two balls hit over his head in deep center field — tough plays, but plays the Nationals have come to expect him to make — and a lot of running around the bases. And so when he sent a chopper up the middle with two outs in the bottom of the 11th, the go-ahead runner on third base, realizing what the situation now demanded of him, Span could think only one thought.
“Got to get on my horses,” he said. “We need a win.”
So it was that the Nationals pulled out an oh-so-needed 5-4 victory on Wednesday, with Span busting down the line to narrowly beat Stephen Drew’s throw to first, driving in Tyler Moore with the game-winning run.
“It’s awesome,” said fellow outfielder Michael Taylor, whose 2-run homer in the eighth made Span’s heroics in the 11th possible. “The fact that he can play through injuries like that and still produce … he’s a huge part of the team.”
Indeed, while Bryce Harper has been the unquestioned MVP of the season so far for the Nationals — and most likely the entire National League — there may be no other member of the lineup more important to this club’s fortunes than Span. When he’s going well, the Nats go well. And when he’s hurting and not his true self, the club suffers for it.
“We need him in the lineup,” Harper said. “He covers everything in center field, left-center, right-center. He has great at-bats. We need to have that in the lineup. It’s tough to miss a leadoff guy who is a catalyst and is always on base and does so much for us. It’s nice to have him in there.”
Span’s latest ailment first cropped up Sunday against the Cubs, when he suffered back spasms and had to leave the game early. He reported to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday hoping to play, and he initially was in the Nationals’ starting lineup until the back stiffened up on him after he took batting practice in mid-afternoon.
With a quick turnaround to Wednesday afternoon’s series finale, the safe bet appeared to be another day off for Span. But he felt good enough after arriving at the park to convince manager Matt Williams he could play.
“When I hit in the cage, it was still stiff, to be honest,” he said. “But I kind of just told myself: ‘You know? Let’s just go out there and go for it and see how it feels. Hopefully it’ll loosen up once the game starts, and if it doesn’t, if it continues to hurt, then I’ll know something’s really wrong with it.’ And as the game went on, it loosened up and it felt OK.”
Span wound up playing a key role throughout the game. He went 3-for-6 at the plate with an RBI double. He stole second base in the top of the ninth as the Nationals tried to mount a game-winning rally. He couldn’t quite track down a pair of deep drives in center field during the bottom of the seventh; had he somehow caught either ball, the Yankees would not have scored four runs in the inning and turned a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 lead.
It was Taylor, though, who helped make Span’s final sprint down the first-base line possible, with yet another clutch home run in a big spot late.
The rookie had been inserted into left field in the bottom of the seventh, back when the Nats still held a lead, for defensive purposes. But it was his bat that made the difference in the top of the eighth, when he took a 1-2 pitch from Yankees left-hander Jacob Lindgren the other way, over the right-field fence for a 2-run, game-tying homer.
It was Taylor’s fifth home run of the season, the last four of which have either tied the game or given the Nationals the lead in the fifth inning or beyond.
“I definitely wasn’t thinking [of trying to homer],” he said. “Just trying to put the barrel on the ball. In a situation like that, it’s easy to try to do too much and pop it up or get into a spot that you don’t want to be in. That’s something I’ve been working on, trying to put the barrel on the ball. I’m just trying to stay short and get something to hit.”
The Nationals’ oft-beleaguered bullpen did its job to close this game out, with Casey Janssen, Blake Treinen and Drew Storen collectively facing the minimum over four scoreless innings of relief.
And so the Nats, after a rough stretch that had included nine losses in 11 games prior to Wednesday along with a litany of injuries to key players, finally had reason to smile at the end of the day. They departed New York bound for Milwaukee, battered and exhausted to be sure, but happy for the first time in a while.
“We’ll take every one we can get right now,” Span said. “Banged up … seems like half the team is either on the DL, or something’s nagging them. So we’ll take any victory anywhere, any how we can get it.”
MORE NATIONALS: Span caps late rally to avoid sweep by Yankees