It took the Washington Nationals a while to make a trade for Denard Span. After he was rumored to be headed to Washington for nearly two years, the Nationals finally pulled off a deal for the center fielder last November.
On Saturday, Span showed why Nats manager Mike Rizzo was so intent on employing him and why the Minnesota Twins were hesitant to let him go.
Making two sensational running catches in left-center with runners on base, Span saved four potential runs -- maybe more -- and had two key singles on offense to lead Washington to a 6-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds before 38,903 at Nationals Park.
It was the third straight win for Washington (13-11) over Cincinnati (13-12) and it included Bryce Harper's team-record ninth April home run and six innings of solid work from Dan Haren (2-3). But the day belonged to Span.
"You usually don't see two web gems in one game," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Those were two heck-of-a-plays."
In his first month in Washington, Span has provided two things the Nationals have sorely lacked -- a natural center fielder and true leadoff hitter. From Brad Wilkerson to Marlon Bird, to Nook Logan, to Lastings Milledge, to Willie Harris, to Nyjer Morgan, to Rick Ankiel and lastly to Bryce Harper, center field has been a revolving door of aspirants, outcasts and miscasts.
But in Span, the Nationals at long last have a proven player at the position, who at 29 figures to be entering into the prime years of his career.
In the sixth inning, Span sprinted to left-center on a drive by Joey Votto and made a leaping catch of a ball destined to slam into the facing of the Reds bullpen. With none out and a runner on first, the play protected a 6-2 lead for Haren, who then induced an inning-ending double play from Brandon Phillips.
"The ball was up there for a while, but he covered a lot of ground," Haren said. "He saved four or five runs today."
Span was at it again an inning later with his best catch so far as a Nat. With the bases loaded, two out and Washington protecting a tenuous 6-3 lead, Span robbed Zack Cozart of a potential game-tying hit against reliever Tyler Clippard.
"He just cruised under it like it was no big deal," said reliever Tyler Clippard. "He just gets really good reads and jumps. There's a lot of fast outfielders out there, but some of them don't get the good jumps."
Nats manager Davey Johnson was more effusive in his praise of the play.
"I didn't think he had a chance to catch that ball," Johnson said. "He out-ran it. I thought when he hit it, that's going to score three runs."
Span played a role on offense as well. His two singles in five at-bats brought his average to .294. In the second inning, after Haren brought in a run with a bloop single to right, Span's sharp single up the middle scored Anthony Rendon for a 2-0 lead.
In the fourth inning, Span led off with a single. He was erased on a force out but helped set the table as Harper blasted a line shot into the Nationals bullpen for his 17th and 18th RBIs, a new April record for the Nats. He already owned the team record for April home runs.
"Unbelievable talent," Span said. "I have to compare it to 2009 when I was teammates with Joe Mauer, watching him win the MVP. Every day he was doing something to help us win, whether it was calling a good game or coming through with the big hit. The first month, that's what I've seen out of Bryce."
On Saturday, however, it was Span's turn to be the MVP.