[Updated 5:35 p.m.]
With just 39 games remaining on their schedule and a 5 1/2-game deficit to make up in the NL East, the Nationals got a big boost to their chances on Tuesday with the activation of Denard Span from the disabled list.
Span returns after over six weeks on the DL while he recovered from back tightness. In order to clear room on their roster, the Nats sent right-hander Tanner Roark to Single-A Potomac.
Roark is expected to be back with the team on Sept. 1 when rosters expand, but he will now transition back to a starter. The hope is to have him take over for rookie Joe Ross, who is close to being shut down for the season because of his workload.
Span was placed on the DL on July 7 and just completed a minor league rehab assignment of six games. He went 7-for-17 with five runs, one homer, three walks and a steal in those outings. Span, 31, holds a .304 batting average and .367 OPS with five homers, 37 runs and 11 steals in 59 MLB games this season.
"It feels good to be back. It's been a long road," Span said. "I'm just ready to get after it and to do all that I can do to help this team."
Span is batting leadoff for the Nats in what is the first time this season they have fielded their projected Opening Day lineup. When Span was healthy, others weren't. And when Span was out, several came back including Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, who all returned in late July.
Span is back, but he knows he isn't entirely in the clear. It was an arduous rehab and a process that at times involved setbacks in his recovery. He is hopeful he can hold up for the rest of this season.
"I don't have a crystal ball. I'm just going to go for it. It's time to go," he said. "I've worked hard. It's definitely been a lot of guts and glory for me this year. I've had to dig deep this last month and a half. I want to give D.C. everything I got and this organization and this fanbase everything that I have. One thing they won't be able to say after this is that 'Denard Span isn't tough.' I've been through a lot, but I'm happy to be here today."
It has been well-documented how much better the Nats have been this year with Span as opposed to when he is out of their lineup. With Span they are 35-24 and without him they are just 27-37.
Now they have their leadoff hitter back, and Span is confident the Nats can claw their way back into the playoffs.
"Why not? We've been here before. The two years I've been here, coming down the stretch this is where we've been. We came up short in 2013, but the year before we won the division and last year we won the division. So, if I had money — which I do — I would put money on us... but there's no betting in baseball," he said.