Abrams' remarkable journey from Opening Day fiasco to breakthrough season

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Inside the home clubhouse at Nationals Park back on March 30, 2023, a devasted CJ Abrams couldn’t believe the nightmare he had just endured.

In his first Opening Day as the Nats’ starting shortstop, the then-22-year-old committed three errors while also going 0-for-4, a disastrous game for anyone at any time, let alone the first day of the season.

“It killed him,” said Ricky Gutierrez, who served as the team’s defensive coordinator last season and was specifically charged with coaching the infielders. “He was crushed.”

Few games get dissected the way Opening Day games get dissected, every positive and every negative moment magnified as if the fate of the entire year depends on it. And for Abrams, the easy narrative was impossible to ignore: He was going to be a liability in the field, not to mention a weak hitter.

Abrams and Gutierrez can laugh a little about it now, some 11 months later, because they know how everything turned out. Abrams wasn’t a liability in the field. Over the course of the season, he developed into a stabilizing force in the field, not to mention one of the most dynamic leadoff hitters in baseball.

He did so by weathering the Opening Day storm and emerging from the wreckage better for it.

“After the game, it hurt,” Abrams said. “Just thinking about it, it’s going to go through my mind. But they’re just thoughts. Let them pass, as they should.”

“That tells you how strong mentally he is,” said Gutierrez, promoted to third base coach over the winter. “Forget about it. Turn the page. Tomorrow’s a new day. Unfortunately it happened Opening Day, under that microscope. But he was able to pull through it.”

The turnaround didn’t happen overnight. Abrams still had some shaky moments in the field, charged with four more errors in April. But over time, he flipped the script. He enjoyed a 25-game stretch with only one error in May, then went 26 games without any errors in July and August.

By season’s end, he was not only making the routine plays with ease, he was seemingly making a highlight-reel play every night.

“Groundballs that he used to think about, he’d just go to them naturally,” Gutierrez said. “It kind of fell into place, and it was muscle memory. It was like waking up and going to the restroom. … It got to a point where I barely had to say anything to him. It just became second nature.”

Abrams took immense pride in his defensive improvement. He finished the year with 4 Defensive Runs Saved, sixth-best among National League shortstops. And when coupled with his offensive explosion in the second half, he might well have been the league’s most improved player.

The story is well known by now. Abrams was batting .230 with a .276 on-base percentage at the end of June, looking very much like the No. 9 hitter he mostly was throughout the first half. But manager Davey Martinez had intended all along to bump him up to the leadoff spot after the All-Star break, and ultimately decided to make the move a couple days early.

How did Abrams respond? From July 1-Sept. 11, he hit .275 with a .335 on-base percentage and .809 OPS. And of course he was successful on 41 of his last 43 stolen base attempts, ending the year with his club-record 47th steal in Game 162.

Abrams got there with a couple of mechanical adjustments at the plate involving his hands and his bat position. And he got there with renewed confidence after Martinez moved him up in the batting order.

“I’ve always been at the top of the lineup my whole life,” he said. “I guess it had a little bit to do with the confidence level, being up there, getting things ready for the team, getting things started.”

Martinez also helped Abrams with the mental side of his game by offering a simple tip when things weren’t going well for him: Instead of focusing on every single at-bat, good or bad, break everything into 10-at-bat blocks.

“In 10 at-bats, do you think you can hit the ball hard four or five times?” Martinez asked his young shortstop. “He looked at me like, ‘Yeah.’ OK, in those 10 at-bats do you think you can mix in a walk? ‘Yeah.’ OK, in those 10 at-bats where you hit the ball hard four or five times, do you think you could get two or three hits? ‘Yeah.’ Because if you can do that, you’re a premier player.”

Every 10 at-bats over the next several months, Martinez would ask Abrams how he had done. The results kept getting better and better.

Had Abrams ever thought in those terms before?

“No,” he admitted. “But it was a good way of thinking about it, for sure.”

By the time the season ended, Abrams had 28 doubles, six triples, 18 homers, 83 runs scored, 47 stolen bases and a burgeoning reputation as one of the better young shortstops in the sport. He’s still got plenty of room for growth, and he’s determined to improve in every one of those categories this year.

But the growth from that Opening Day fiasco to that Game 162 sense of satisfaction was undeniable.

And what did Abrams think when he went home in October?

“I was just ready for this next one,” he said. “We’ve got another journey. Let’s do it.”

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