Enter the bottom of the eighth inning, September 25 vs. the division-leading Chicago White Sox, who they were just a half-game behind. Before 43,601 wound up fans, the ever-calm outfielder Denard Span chops a ball down the line that inches past the glove of first baseman Paul Konerko. Racing past first and second, he slides into third safely, pumping his fists and screaming to third base coach Scott Ullger.
“Definitely,” said Span, “By far, that was the biggest hit of my career.”
Drafted with the 20th pick overall out of Tampa Catholic High School by the Twins, Span was drawing comparisons to that of Kenny Lofton, he was already being viewed as the long-term replacement to the then starting center fielder Torii Hunter.
Living up to the expectations, however, weren’t as easy.
In the later part of 2005 and all of the 2006 baseball season, Span spent time in New Britain, the AA affiliate of the Twins, where he posted an average of .285 in 803 career at-bats.
But it was in 2007 at Rochester, the Twins AAA affiliate, where his totals dipped. In 156 at-bats, he hit .267 and saw his strikeout total balloon, with a strikeout to walk ratio of 2.25.
"At the time when I was struggling at Rochester, I didn't realize how those struggles would cost me," Span said. "That the organization and people in baseball would think that I wasn't ready for the big leagues. At that time I truly felt I had shown enough that I could at least play in the big leagues.
"I think once I started hearing people say, 'He can't play in the big leagues, he's another fourth outfielder or a pinch-runner-type guy,' that definitely caused me to dig deep. Whenever I'm feeling down or tired around here now, I just think about those times ... feeling hurtful and torn."
In the following off-season, Span learned that he had astigmatism in his right eye, and underwent corrective laser surgery that he credits a lot of his success to now.
“When I’m hitting, I’m definitely seeing the ball better,” says Span, “More in detail. I see the rotation of the ball, the spin of the ball.”
Span was later invited to Spring Training with the major-league ball-club, but not without competition. The center-piece of the trade that sent two-time Cy Young award winner Johan Santana, Carlos Gomez ultimately won the starting job.
"I didn't think that I was going to cry, but it just came out," said Span in retrospect of his Spring Training demotion, “I knew I had worked so hard in the off-season to that point, and to hear that news, it crushed me.”
But persisting nonetheless, he hit .340 with an on-base-percentage of .434 at Rochester with a much lower strikeout to walk ratio of 1.38. And after a finger injury to starting right fielder Michael Cuddyer, Denard was called up for the first time in his career.
In the three weeks he spent with the Twins, he hit .258 with no home runs, and was subsequently shipped back to Rochester, NY.
"I just wanted to have the mentality that I don't want to go down and have everyone say they were right, that I wasn't ready for the major leagues," he said. "I just wanted to go down and play my heart out and play, not for the Twins, but play for myself and prove to myself that, 'Hey, I'm a major leaguer and given an opportunity I'll be ready to go.'"
It wasn’t long before that opportunity came, and on June 30, he was recalled. Since then, he has earned the starting right fielder job and usurped center fielder Carlos Gomezin the leadoff spot. Span goes in to the 2009 season as the likely leadoff man and starting outfielder for the Twins opening day. He says, however, that he is still not content with what he has accomplished.
“I still have a chip on my shoulder,” Span joked in an interview with KSTP talk show host Matt Thomas, “But now it’s just on my left and not on both.”