Some early observations on Abrams, Winker, the bullpen and more

The Nationals return to action tonight as the Dodgers come to town looking for revenge from last week’s series in Los Angeles.

The Nats will have the opportunity to do something this week they haven’t done since 2014: Win the season series against the Dodgers.

That’s right, since going 4-2 against the Dodgers 10 years ago, the Nats are 0-6-2 in season series against their West Coast foes. The teams split the season series 3-3 in 2017 and 2022, and didn’t play each other in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, in which teams only played their division rivals and the same division in the other league. Overall, the Nats are 15-35 against the Dodgers since 2014.

Also, did you know this week marks Shohei Ohtani’s first trip to D.C.? He has hit .300 with a .697 OPS in eight games against the Nats, all of which came in Los Angeles as a member of either the Angels or Dodgers. And he made one start as a pitcher against the Nats last year in Anaheim, tossing seven shutout innings with one hit, five walks and six strikeouts.

But enough about these upcoming games. Let’s make some observations from the first month of the season …

* Anyone who’s paid a lick of attention to this team over the first 21 games knows CJ Abrams is playing at an All-Star level.

He entered this week second in the majors with a .676 slugging percentage and fifth with a 1.034 OPS. He was also tied for third in the majors with 13 extra-base hits and tied for the major league lead with three triples.

Oh, and he’s tied for fourth in the big leagues with six home runs, which is an especially encouraging development. Though he finished with 18 longballs last year, he didn’t hit his sixth until his 52nd game on May 31. This year, it took him 73 plate appearances to hit his sixth homer.

Abrams’ struggles to start the season in 2023 are well documented. So to see him come firing out of the gate and show his superstar potential is a really good sign for him and the Nationals.

And that has carried over to the field. At this point in the year last year, Abrams already had committed seven errors at shortstop. So far this year, he only has one, which may have been a bad call by the official scorer when Abrams dropped a tough toss from Luis García Jr. while trying to turn a double play in the top of the ninth inning Saturday against the Astros.

* A major key for the Nats this year is getting some decent returns on offseason investments, i.e. having players signed to short-term deals make an impact on the major league level.

They struck out last year with Corey Dickerson and Dominic Smith, though they did hit with Jeimer Candelario and were able to trade him for two prospects currently in their top 30 rankings, per MLB Pipelin

To start this year, Jesse Winker has filled that role.

The 30-year-old, who signed a minor league deal right before spring training, entered this week third in the majors with a .439 on-base percentage. He was also 10th in the National League with a .328 average.

His hot start has not only moved him up to No. 2 in the order, but it has also made him the Nats’ top trade chip to begin the season.

As for their other two veteran contributors added this offseason, Joey Gallo and Eddie Rosario? They are a combined 15-for-112 (.134) with seven doubles, four homers, eight RBIs, 15 walks and 47 strikeouts.

* While parts of the Nats bullpen has been shaky at times, the two guys at the back end have been dominant.

Kyle Finnegan was tied for second in the majors and first in the NL with seven saves to start the week. He hasn’t allowed a baserunner over his last four outings, which include a win and three saves.

Meanwhile, Hunter Harvey started the week tied for the major league lead with seven holds, while his 18 strikeouts were tied for third among big league relievers.

In fact, if you take out each of their bad outings in Cincinnati to start the season (two hits, two runs and one walk in one inning on March 30 for Harvey and three hits, three runs and a blown save in ⅔ of an inning March 31 for Finnegan), the two right-handers have combined for a 2-1 record, 0.48 ERA, 0.857 WHIP, 25 strikeouts, five walks, seven saves and seven holds over 18 appearances.

* Mitchell Parker is off to an exceptional start to his major league career.

While the 24-year-old probably wasn’t thought to be one of the first pitching prospects to come up this season, the left-hander has been nothing short of sensational. Over his first two major league starts, he is 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA, seven hits, no walks and 12 strikeouts over 12 innings.

Parker has been one of the best strikeout starting pitchers in the Nats system since he was drafted in the fifth round in 2020 out of San Jacinto Junior College, aside from only top pitching prospect Cade Cavalli. But where he struggled was walks.

He had an 11.3 walk rate last year between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Rochester, so the Nats really tasked him with getting his stuff more in the zone.

The zero walks through his first two major league outings and just one in his only Triple-A start this year are signs that the message was received.

Here are some more notes from Nats PR on Parker’s gem Sunday against the Astros, in which he pitched seven shutout innings with eight strikeouts on 73 pitches: He became the fifth pitcher in major league history to strike out at least 12 hitters and not issue a walk in the first two games of his career, joining Shota Imanaga, Tanner Bibee, Johnny Cueto and Andy Sonnanstine.

Parker also became the first National to throw seven shutout innings on fewer than 75 pitches. He is the first pitcher to throw seven scoreless frames on 73 or fewer pitches since the Braves’ Kyle Wright on Aug. 24, 2022 in Pittsburgh.

Perhaps his incredible start helped get him prime locker real estate in the Nationals clubhouse: He now occupies what was Stephen Strasburg’s locker at Nationals Park, which must be reserved for those pitchers who earn the win in their major league debuts with the Nats.

Parker’s next start is scheduled for Saturday in Miami.

* The Nationals have a new ping pong table in their home clubhouse.

While that may ruffle some feathers of local media members on the Commanders beat, in just a few days it already seemed to be a big hit among the players, even though not many matches have been played yet. It’ll take some time to see who is the best player on the team.

No one has outwardly claimed to be the purchaser of the table, but one can make an educated guess based on the salaries and career earnings of the players on the roster …

Unfortunately for us Nats media members, it sits right in the middle of the room, which is where we usually stand during availability. Maybe we’ll get a couple of turns on the table to make up for our lack of space.

* The Nats also had a handful of Capitals jerseys hanging in their lockers over the weekend, as their cross-town friends on the local hockey team began their playoff march toward another Stanley Cup. Trevor Williams wore his blue alternate Dylan Strome jersey, or sweater as he corrected, while talking to the media after his start on Saturday.

The two teams have been close since the faces of the franchises Ryan Zimmerman and Alex Ovechkin debuted in 2005. And the organizations essentially became best friends when the Caps won the Cup in 2018 and celebrated at Nationals Park, and then the Nats won the World Series in 2019 and celebrated during a Caps home game.

I would imagine more jerseys will be worn and displayed in the Nats clubhouse as the Caps get set for Game 2 of their first round matchup against the Rangers tonight.

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