Denard Span had a day to remember on Tuesday. He collected hits in both ends of the Nationals' doubleheader sweep of the Braves, allowing him to tie and surpass fellow former Twin Michael Cuddyer of the Rockies for the season's longest hitting streak at 28 games. Even beyond his hits, Span has played a pivotal role in their afternoon win, one typical of his contributions during his team's belated bid for an NL wild-card berth.
Span's worked an eight-pitch walk to lead off Washington's three-run first inning, then added a single in his second at-bat. Atlanta rallied to carry a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth with stud closer Craig Kimbrel on the mound but the Nationals closed to within 5-4 and had Span at the plate with runners at second and third with one out. His bouncer up the middle squirted through the legs of fielding whiz Andrelton Simmons, bringing home both the game-tying and game-winning runs. While it may seem incongruous to include a video of a reach-on-error in a post celebrating a hitting streak, this is a little less mundane than his aforementioned single:
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Span's role in Washington's 4-0 nightcap win — the team's 10th victory in its past 11 games — wasn't as crucial, but here's the opposite field flare off Freddy Garcia, a Nice Piece of Hitting, that gave him this year's longest hitting streak:
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Here's this year's hitting streak leaderboard; Joe DiMaggio has nothing to worry about:
Given that the next-longest active streak is the Indians' Carlos Santana at 12 games, Span is assured of ending the year with this particular title. He's already beaten last year's top streak (David Ortiz at 27 games) and has the longest streak since Dan Uggla's 33 games in 2011. Next up in terms of significant milestones are the Nationals' team record of 30 set by Ryan Zimmerman in 2009, and that of the franchise's Montreal forbears, 31 games by Vladimir Guerrero in 1999. His shots at both of those will come in the four-game series against the Marlins, which starts on Thursday night.
Span has hit a sizzling .378/.414/.504 during the streak, part of a longer resurgence via which he's hit .318/.352/.430 in 231 plate appearances since the All-Star break, compared to .263/.320/.358 in 390 PA prior. The team's offense, which spent the first two-third of the season eking out a mere 3.71 runs per game as the injury-riddled team went 52-56, has bashed out an NL-best 5.09 runs per game since the beginning of August, helping the Nats put together an MLB-best 29-14 record in that span.
Even so, it's probably too little, too late for a club from which so much was expected after last year's 98 wins. At 81-70, the Nationals are still 4 1/2 games behind the Reds (86-66) for the second wild-card spot with just 11 left to play. They have the easier schedule of the two teams, with an average opponent winning percentage of .473 compared to Cincinnati's .533; beyond Wednesday night's game against the Braves, Washington plays four at home against the Marlins and then three apiece on the road against the Cardinals and Diamondbacks. After Wednesday's game against the Astros, the Reds sandwich a three-game series at home against the Mets around home-and-home three-gamers with the Pirates, who at 87-64 have a 1 1/2 game lead over the Reds for the top wild-card spot.
Via the MLB.com Curly W blog, here's how well the Nationals have to do to tie either the Reds or Pirates and force a pre-wild-card play-in game:
So, for example, if the Nats go 8-2 the rest of the way to get to 90 wins, they need the Reds to do no better than 4-6 or the Pirates to do no better than 3-8. In all, the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds give Washington a 3.3 percent chance of winding up in a wild-card position. It probably won't happen, but coming into the day Span's streak began, the Nats were 59-62, with a 1.8 percent chance of winning a spot. He's done his part, but he's going to have to keep doing it if they're to pull off this unlikely comeback.