Aug 27, 2015, 11:49 PM EDT
Denard Span’s return from the disabled list earlier this week was as big an emotional boost as the Nationals had experienced in quite some time. Which only made the center fielder’s return to the DL late Thursday night an even tougher punch to the gut.
Span is out again, this time with inflammation in his left hip suffered as he attempted to return from a lower back injury that sidelined him the previous seven weeks. The timing of this latest setback, at this stage of a season that has included a never-ending string of injuries that all appear to have been connected, makes it unlikely Span returns to play in 2015.
“It’s unclear right now,” manager Matt Williams said during a somber news conference despite his team’s 4-2 win over the Padres. “I’d imagine it’s going to be very tough for him to get back.”
The revelation of Span’s setback came on a night the Nationals lost two other key players to injury, with Yunel Escobar forced to leave the game after getting hit in the right hand with a pitch and Michael Taylor banging his right knee against the center field wall in a frightening collision that left the rookie dazed and hobbled.
Both players were diagnosed with contusions, both considered day-to-day, according to Williams. But Taylor’s status will loom large now, with the Nationals at best needing to find themselves another center fielder for a couple of days, if not more.
With Span unavailable to replace Taylor following the seventh-inning collision, the Nationals had no choice but to put together a makeshift defensive lineup: Bryce Harper in center field, Jayson Werth in right field, Danny Espinosa in left field, Trea Turner at second base.
Williams said the club will make a corresponding move before Friday night’s series opener against the Marlins. Matt den Dekker, a likely September call-up anyway, would be the simplest choice for a promotion from Class AAA Syracuse, unless general manager Mike Rizzo has something else up his sleeve.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like it, but it is what it is,” said Williams, who has been able to fill out a lineup card with all eight regulars healthy only twice this season. “Mikey’s playing hard. Yunel’s playing hard. Denard, when he was able to, has played hard. There’s not much you can do about it, other than do what I tell you guys everyday: We’ll forget about this one and prepare for tomorrow.”
Span’s entire season has been derailed by injuries, beginning with a sports hernia that required surgery in December. He needed another surgery to repair an abdominal tear suffered while trying to come back from the initial injury in spring training, forcing him to open the season on the DL. Then came the lingering back injury, a byproduct of the surgeries, which Span tried to play through for more then a month before he finally was placed back on the DL in July.
After a lengthy rehab process, Span finally believed he was healthy enough to rejoin the club this week, activated on Tuesday. He wound up playing in two games, going 2-for-9 with two doubles and a walk and showing no outward signs of trouble.
During Wednesday night’s game, though, the 31-year-old felt pain in his hip, directly related to all the other injuries. He was out of the lineup Thursday, then wasn’t available to come off the bench when Taylor got hurt in the seventh inning.
Span’s importance to the Nationals can’t be overstated: The club is 36-25 this season when he plays, 28-37 when he doesn’t.
Before making his return Tuesday, Span admitted the uncertainty he faced in coming back from an injury that was never really going to completely disappear in-season.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “I’m just going to go for it. It’s time to go. 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 fan base 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.”
Span, one of several prominent players on the Nationals roster who is due to become a free agent at season’s end, now faces another rehab period, the Washington portion of his career perhaps over in crushing fashion.
“Only he knows what he’s going through,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Not the doctor. Not us. Not anyone. It’s frustrating for him. It’s frustrating for everyone, because he obviously makes our team way better. But at the same time, he’s played 150-some games every year. You’d think he would know what’s going on with his body. It’s not like he’s not a tough guy. You’ve got to be tough to play 140-150 games every year like he has.”
Few players in the Nationals’ clubhouse are as popular as Span, which made this development particularly tough for many to swallow. Injuries have been one of the defining characteristics of this season, though, which for all its travails still includes 36 more games, a 6 1/2-game deficit to the Mets still standing in their way.
“It’s never easy,” Werth said. “You go through the season, it’s a lot of ups and downs. You run into all kinds of different things. But regardless, you gotta find a way to win, gotta find a way to overcome it. We’re in it right now. I think everybody in here believes we can do it. We haven’t lost hope to any degree. … Got another game coming tomorrow, another series. We gotta find a way to win that series. Nobody said it was gonna be easy.”
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