Before Denard Span suffered a setback last week, he'd progressed to full workouts, live batting practice and taking fly balls and line drives in the outfield in Nationals Park as he worked his way back from a back issue which landed him on the DL.
Washington's 31-year-old center fielder and leadoff man recovered from two surgeries this winter/spring, after putting together a .302/.355/.416, 39 double, eight triple, five home run, 31 stolen base, +4.0 fWAR campaign last season over 147 games and 668 plate appearances, which convinced the Nationals to pick up his $9M club option for 2015.
When he's been in the lineup, Span has produced the same results, with a .304/.367/.430 line, 15 doubles, five home runs, and 11 stolen bases in 59 games and 265 PAs, but the problem has been staying on the field.
Span's season started late after he returned from the second of the two surgical procedures, but in late May, he began having back spasms and though he played through the issue, he eventually decided that he couldn't keep doing it.
"It's got to the point now that I've got to figure out what's going on," he told reporters after going on the DL in early July. "This is bigger than today. Hopefully I want to play another ten years, so I've got to figure this out."
A trip to a back specialist and a cortisone shot in his lower back followed, but he hasn't been in the lineup in well over a month now since he last played a game on July 6th.
"There's no place I'd rather be than battling it with my teammates," Span said last week, after a workout in the nation's capital. "We've got ourselves a little fight with the Mets and I want to be there and try to do what I can to help uplift this team."
Span suffered a setback, however, and had to slow things down.
"He took a couple of steps back on the last homestand," Nats' skipper Matt Williams explained in an MLB Network Radio interview this past Wednesday.
"We had ramped him up to get him to live BP situations, and then it didn’t go as well as he wanted it to, so we stepped him back a couple of steps, and as we’re on the road here he’s working out with our Potomac team and making it back to where he wants to get to, so hopefully all goes well and he can get in some games here pretty soon. They’re running out of the minor league season here very quickly, so he’s working hard to get back and get some games before he can rejoin us and go from there."
"He's doing baseball activities now," GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C's Grant Paulsen this week.
"He's sprinting full-go and he's taking swings. Hopefully some time in the next couple of days to a week, we can get him out to Florida and start swinging the bat and get into some more baseball game-like activities down in Viera and then we'll take it from there.
"We're going to monitor him because of the setbacks he's had. He's day-to-day. We're monitoring him day-to-day, and see how he responds each and every day and then take it to the next level when we think it's appropriate."
Time is running out though.
The Nationals are 4.5 games out of first after their third straight loss and the Mets' fourth straight win on Thursday.
They have 48 games left, including six against the divison-leaders from New York, but Span has been sidelined for so long at this point that it's going to take some time to get up to game speed even when he returns.
Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth, who all returned from their respective DL stints late last month, have struggled to find their rhythm and timing at the plate, though Zimmerman's picked it up in recent weeks and Rendon's bat has shown some signs of life.
But it's taken time, and the Nationals and Span are running out of it. With their leadoff man in the lineup, the Nats are 35-24. They're 23-32 without Span, and since he last played, they're 12-17.
Can he return in time to make a difference for the Nationals?
Or will his time in D.C, with Span eligible for free agency after this season, and likely to test the market, end with the outfielder unavailable or ineffective as the Nationals fall out of the race for a postseason berth?