For much of the 2014 season, while injuries took their toll on the rest of the Nationals lineup, it was the combination of Denard Span and Anthony Rendon that led the way. Both players earned NL MVP votes as arguably the best one-two punch at the top of the order in baseball. Span led the league in hits, Rendon led the league in runs.
But in 2015, that has so far not been the case. Span has been in the lineup after missing the first two weeks of the season and has mostly been himself. He is hitting over .300, leading the team in stolen bases and setting the table as an elite leadoff hitter.
Rendon, on the other hand, has not been the guy we saw in 2014. He missed the first third of the season and before Tuesday was hitting just .230/.333/.311, far below his .287/.351/.473 Silver Slugger slash of last year.
Tuesday, though, may have given the Nationals their first reminder this season of what they are capable of as a duo. Span went 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI and a run. Rendon had easily his best game of 2015 and went 4-for-4 with an RBI.
After the Nats' 3-1 win over the Braves, some couldn't help but make the year-to-year comparison, even Span himself.
"I think it just sets the tone," he said. "It sets the whole offense in motion, especially if I get on base and he comes behind me. He usually gives me a pitch or two to try and get on second base. And if not, if I don't steal, he's very capable of hitting a homer or hitting a double. It's just something that sets the tone for the whole team and the whole game when we do our jobs."
"They both have a good sense of the strike zone when they're standing at the plate, so they walk a lot which sets up our 3-4-5 guys," manager Matt Williams said. "That was the measure of our success offensively last year. We hope that that's going to continue to be the measure of our success. Those two guys at the top of the lineup are important for us."
Span and Rendon made an impact immediately on Tuesday night against Braves starter Alex Wood. Span led off the first inning with a double off the wall in center field over the head of Cameron Maybin. Rendon then poked a single down the right-field line to score Span and put the Nats up a run before Atlanta even recorded their first out.
That small detail, taking a pitch outside and sending it the other way, was particularly impressive according to Williams.
"Te first one down the line, just trying to get Denard over. He hit a ball down the line to drive in a run," Williams explained. "To move a baseball, like Anthony did tonight. Denard leads off with a double and he just moves the baseball the other way. It just sets up innings for us."
Those are the types of plays that the Nationals have come to expect from Rendon. His average rose to .277 on Tuesday, much closer to his career mark, but it's the finer things that stand out to his coaches and teammates.
"He's looking Tony-esque," Tanner Roark said. "That basehit, his first basehit down the line, you could just tell he is taking balls where he's being pitched at. He looked good."
"It's getting there," Williams said. "For Anthony, if he's hitting the ball on a line the other way, then you know his swing is right. In recent days he's hit some groundballs to short. If he's doing that, then you know he's not quite right on his timing."
Span was already in regular form, but now that Rendon is coming around the potential of the Nationals' lineup was on full display Tuesday night. If they are setting the table, guys like Bryce Harper - who went 0-for-4 in the game - don't have to carry the load like they have for much of this season.
"It's not easy [to pitch against]. Denard is playing really well and Tony's back in the lineup feeling good and feeling healthy," Roark said. "One through nine, one through eight, whatever. We've got a great lineup and we're all confident. It's pretty tough to face us."