8/21/2014 10:09 P.M. ET
Easy-going Nationals letting talent take over
By Daniel Popper and Bill Ladson / MLB.com
WASHINGTON -- Before every game, each player on the Nationals goes through immense amounts of preparation. Defensive coordinator Mark Weidemaier provides players with a scouting sheet detailing the fielding game plan for the day, while hitting coach Rick Schu makes countless hours of tape on the opposing pitcher available to hitters.
But once the Nationals take the field, the demeanor changes. One can often find players laughing, talking and smiling, particularly third baseman Anthony Rendon. When Doug Fister is pitching, the right-hander almost always finishes his warmups early. That's when the infielders congregate behind the mound with their starter and have an easy-going conversation, complete with overflowing positive body language.
Manager Matt Williams said that characteristic for the team has been crucial in its success this season.
"Once you get out there, you have to let your natural ability take over and enjoy that part of the game," Williams said. "This game's about relaxation and about letting your natural ability take over. And when the first pitch is thrown, they have to do that. All the preparation is done before, and then they can just go let her fly. And that's kind of the attitude they've taken."
'Meaningful' stolen base gives Span career high
WASHINGTON -- With one out in the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday against the D-backs, Nationals leadoff man Denard Span poked a softly hit single to center field. He represented the potential winning run in a scoreless game.
After Span's hit, Arizona manger Kirk Gibson opted to pull reliever Oliver Perez in favor of right-hander Evan Marshall. And during the ensuing warmup pitches, Span listened intently to first-base coach Tony Tarasco, who provided the speedy center fielder with Marshall's times to home plate for both his slidestep and regular delivery.
Then it became Span's decision.
"He left it in my hands," Span said. "He told me, 'If you think you can get it, go get it.'"
Three pitches into the next at-bat, Span took off for second. Marshall delivered an 84-mph slider to Anthony Rendon, which gave Span just enough time to beat Tuffy Gosewisch's throw and slide safely into second for his 27th stolen base, a new single-season high for the 30-year-old.
Two pitches later, Rendon hit a ground ball that forced Jordan Pacheco into a throwing error. The ball skipped past first baseman Mark Trumbo and out of play, scoring Span to propel the Nationals their 10th straight victory and fifth walk-off in six games.
"That's what guys like me -- speed guys -- we dream of, getting stolen bases like that in the ninth inning and helping your team win," Span said. "That was probably my first meaningful bag in my career right there, where I actually stole and put us in a position to win."
After the game, Span said the key to his stolen base was finding his "alter ego." After going over Marshall's scouting report with Tarasco, Span meandered into foul territory near the Nationals' dugout for a moment of self-reflection.
"I just had to walk off," Span said, "hype myself up for a second."
Span said an old friend used to characterize his two differing personalities.
"Denard is the guy that is passive, the guy that is afraid to make a mistake," Span said. "'Span is the guy that is a playmaker."
When Marshall had concluded his warmup pitches, Span returned to first base. He was no longer Denard. He was Span.
"I kind of just had to put on my alter ego and talk myself into it and get in that zone," Span said. "I was just ready and I was able to get a good jump."
With Thursday's steal, Span inched ever closer to his goal of 30 stolen bases for the season -- a significant achievement for any leadoff man. In his 12 years as professional, both in the Majors and Minor Leagues, Span never stole more 26 bases, a total he compiled in 2010 with the Twins.
He surpassed that mark with more than a month left in the regular season on Thursday.
"I give all the credit to this organization for just believing in me," Span said. "Whenever I make a mistake, they're always telling me, 'Just keep going. Keep being aggressive.' And this is my first time saying this, but in 10 years I never had that in Minnesota. So it's just a good feeling, man, just to know that they believe in me."
Zimmerman resumes baseball activities
WASHINGTON -- Nationals veteran Ryan Zimmerman returned to baseball-related activities on Thursday afternoon when he threw for the first time since sustaining his injury (Grade 3 right hamstring strain) less than a month ago at Coors Field in Denver.
Zimmerman played catch with assistant athletic trainer Steve Gober from around 60 feet for no more than 10 minutes. The right-handed slugger reported feeling good after the session.
"Just trying to wake the arm up a little bit," Zimmerman said.
Manager Matt Williams considered it important progress for Zimmerman, who's missed more than 70 games this season between his hamstring and the fractured right thumb he sustained in early April.
"You have to use that muscle to throw. It's part of the deal," Williams said. "That's the early stages of it, but it's a step for sure."
There remains no timetable for Zimmerman's return, but Williams did discuss what the rest of the third baseman's rehab process might entail. The manager said Zimmerman will likely start throwing on an every-other-day basis, as long as he feels good. With each session, Zimmerman will throw from farther distances while adding "dynamic components," such as crow hops and other drills involving more movement in his lower half.
"It's one thing to do hamstring exercises," Williams said. "But to be sport-specific is key, too."
Moving forward, Williams said there are number of benchmarks that are crucial as far Zimmerman's return, which will likely come in mid-September.
"One is taking batting practice, because that's not quite as difficult as running," Williams said. "The second one would be being able to run full speed. And then we have to get him on the bases, and that's probably the biggest test, because he has to react and turn and create different angles and things to turn the base. So that's generally, with any pulled muscle, especially with legs, the final step he would have to go through before he would go play."
Williams on the hook for Babe impersonation
WASHINGTON -- Earlier this season, Nationals manager Matt Williams said that if the Nationals won 10 consecutive games, he would impersonate Babe Ruth before a game. As a member of the Giants in the early 1990s, Williams once impersonated the baseball legend's famous stance and home-run trot.
On Thursday, the Nationals won their 10th consecutive game, but don't look for Williams to impersonate the Babe any time soon. He tried not to talk about it with the media after the team's 1-0 victory over the D-backs. Williams jokingly said would be the Babe in the privacy of a stadium somewhere.
"It's not appropriate. You talk to folks and you say, 'Sure, we would love to win 10 in a row.' At some point, it will be fun and appropriate, but not right now," Williams said.
Nationals infielder Kevin Frandsen was born and raised in the Bay Area and remembered when Williams played Babe at Candlestick Park.
"I'm from the Bay Area, you have seen it a couple of times," Frandsen said.
Anthony Rendon has seen the video of Williams as well. Rendon, however would like to see an updated version.
"It would be kind of interesting to see him. It might be like a real run this time for him," Rendon said.
• Ian Desmond was out of the Nationals' starting lineup on Thursday for the first time since July 11 and just the third time all season. Danny Espinosa started at shortstop and Asdrubal Cabrera remained at second base.
As for why he decided to play Espinosa at short and Cabrera at second, Williams said: "Not trying to upset the apple cart too much."
• Outfielder Nate McLouth underwent season-ending surgery on Thursday to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
• After the Nats walked off for the fourth time in five games Wednesday night -- their ninth straight win -- Williams and his staff rose on Thursday morning to run for the 10th consecutive day.
"I can tell you this: Our coaching staff is dog tired right now, because there is superstition there," Williams said. "On the first game of this streak, we ran. And we've run every day since."
Daniel Popper is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.