Mariners outfielder Denard Span likes to dictate the pace when he’s at the plate. He’ll pause for time by holding his hand up toward the home-plate umpire. He’ll take time to set his feet. Anything to get the opposing pitcher worked up.
That approach, including calling timeout twice, worked Monday against Orioles starter Andrew Cashner, who yielded a solo home run to the wily veteran.
You might recall Span’s tactic also spoiled former Tampa Bay teammate and Shorewood High School alumnus Blake Snell’s shot at a record. After striking out seven consecutive batters to start the game against Seattle on June 9, Snell couldn’t get a third strike past Span on an at-bat that seemed like it lasted an hour. Span called time twice and eventually grounded out after 10 pitches.
“He has so much experience,” manager Scott Servais said after the Mariners’ 5-3 win over the Orioles on Monday. “I think guys are learning watching him. I think they need to learn a bit more at times.”
Don’t tell Span, but he wasn’t was supposed to be the headliner of the deal with Tampa Bay that also brought in right-hander Alex Colome.
But entering Tuesday’s game in Baltimore, Span was hitting .301 in his time with the Mariners with three home runs in 22 games. He hit four home runs with his hometown Rays in 43 games and batted .238, though he had a .364 on-base percentage. He has a career .282 average and .348 on-base percentage.
Span has also been one of the Mariners’ best performers when they’ve needed it most. He hit a go-ahead, two-run double to beat the Red Sox two weeks ago at Safeco Field and is batting .348 in high-leverage situations, which is third-highest on the team behind Dee Gordon (.432) and Nelson Cruz (.391).
“Everyone was excited that we brought in Alex Colome. Denard Span was a really big part of that deal in the fact he’s got so much experience being in tight situations,” Servais said. “We’re going to be in a bunch more of those here as we go the rest of the season, and his experience, his ability to slow it down in those moments, it’s not just good for him but good for everybody else to see how he handles those at-bats.
“You know you’re going to get a good at-bat. You don’t always know if it’s going to be a game-winning double, but the quality of the at-bat is always going to be there for him.”
Span is one of nine Mariners batters hitting over .290 in high-leverage situations, according to Baseball Reference, where a one-run deficit in the ninth inning is a higher-leverage moment than a one-run deficit in the second inning. He said this is the longest lineup he’s been a part of in his 11 seasons in the major leagues, including stints with the Minnesota Twins, Washington Nationals, San Francisco Giants and the Rays.
“It’s loose here — really loose,” Span said in front of his Safeco Field locker before the Mariners left for this current 11-day road trip. “That’s something that was evident right off the bat. Everybody in here is having a good time. Everybody likes each other. There’s no cliques.”
That can be a bit of a cliché statement.
Span meant it.
“I’ll be honest, the first couple of days I was here I was like, ‘This is kind of weird,’” Span said. “Because everybody is having a good time. There’s really no cliques. Everybody is joking amongst each other and I honestly don’t think I’ve truly experienced that on any other club I’ve been on.”
He actually learned of his trade to the Mariners before the trade was officially made. Gordon gave him a call to let him know he’s heard rumblings they’d be teammates.
The Mariners coveted his experience, acquiring him after Robinson Cano’s 80-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s joint drug agreement to join an outfield rotation with Mitch Haniger, Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel, each of whom is coming off his rookie season.
But in seeing him more they’ve appreciated his ability to control the strike zone, honed, he said, while spending parts of six seasons in the minor leagues before becoming a regular with the Twins in 2008. He was tied for the National League lead in hits in 2014 with 184 when he played for Washington.
He said he watched tape of every leadoff hitter in the league, especially Kenny Lofton and Juan Pierre.
“When I was younger, I just always observed other players. When I was in the minors, I used to watch every single big-league leadoff hitter, just seeing how they went about their business, how they controlled their at-bats,” Span said. “You don’t see that as much now, the prototypical leadoff hitters like you had back in the day (the Mariners have two of them in Gordon and Jean Segura).
“But for me, I just watched. I was always compared to guys like that growing up and I understood my role was to get on base and score and set the tone. I’m not a leadoff hitter on this team, but I still approach it like I am. So no matter where I’m at in the lineup, I take the same approach.”