Improved defense already showing up in metrics

CJ Abrams Luis Garcia gray celebrate

The Nationals went into the season touting much-improved defensive play, insisting that would help make their pitching staff better. Sixteen games into the 162-game marathon, there appears to be some truth to that line of thinking.

Though they’ve still made their share of mistakes in the field, including 12 errors (tied for most in the majors) and several fly balls lost in the sun, the Nats have played a much crisper brand of baseball. The eye test says that, but so do some actual defensive metrics.

FanGraphs’ all-encompassing defensive rating has the Nationals right in the middle of the pack, ranked 15th out of 30 major league clubs. They rank 17th with minus-1 Defensive Runs Saved. They rank 16th in Defensive Efficiency, converting 69.1 percent of all batted balls into outs.

By those measurements, the Nats are an average defensive team. Which may not sound like much, until you remember they were one of, if not the worst defensive teams in baseball last year.

The biggest improvement has come in the infield. Their worst position is shortstop, with zero DRS (CJ Abrams’ three Opening Day errors didn’t help there). Their best position is third base, with 3 DRS thanks to Jeimer Candelario’s smooth play through the season’s first 16 games.

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Nats follow familiar script in narrow loss to Guardians (updated)


The Nationals continue to do enough to keep themselves engaged in close ballgames, right through the final out of the ninth. And they continue to do just enough to keep themselves from emerging victorious by losing the second half of close ballgames.

Whether by bullpen struggle or punchless lineup, the Nats just aren’t delivering in meaningful situations when they have a chance to seize control of a game late. It’s happened several times over the last two-plus weeks, and it happened again this evening during a 6-4 loss to the Guardians that was there for the taking but never captured by the home club.

The Nationals’ 11th loss in their first 15 games followed an all-too-familiar script. They had a brief burst of offense early, scoring three runs in the bottom of the first. Then they let the opposition catch up and then overtake them by the top of the fifth. And then they did very little at the plate themselves the rest of the way, shut down by Cleveland’s bullpen to suffer yet another loss by slim margin.

Four of the Nats’ last six losses have come by only one run. The others were a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Shohei Ohtani on Tuesday night in Anaheim, then this two-run loss that had been a one-run game until Josh Bell produced a big insurance run for the Guardians in the top of the ninth.

The common theme in all of these losses: A lack of execution in the later innings. Entering tonight, the Nationals owned a solid .751 OPS in innings 1-3, a respectable .702 OPS in innings 4-6 but a paltry .486 OPS in innings 7-9.

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Does Nats' record accurately reflect their play?

abrams k opening day 2023

ANAHEIM, Calif. – In the most literal of senses, the Nationals are off to a bad start to the season. You can’t look at a 4-9 record and claim they’ve been anything other than bad.

Nor can you look at their just-completed, seven-game road trip to Colorado and Anaheim and suggest a 3-4 outcome was a good thing. No losing road trip is a good road trip.

Take a step back, though, and consider how the Nats played over the last week, how they looked, how they pitched, how they defended and how they at times hit. You might start to feel differently about the overall state of things.

“I think we played really well. I really do,” manager Davey Martinez said following Wednesday’s narrow loss to the Angels. “We were in every game. We swung the bats fairly well. Now we’ve just got to hone in on driving in runs from third base with less than two outs. That’s the key. We’ve got to keep working on that. But the boys are battling, and I’m proud of that.”

Any mention of boys battling is sure to draw eye rolls and groans from those who have heard that sentiment way too many times from Martinez in his five-plus years managing this ballclub. But there is some truth in what he says. The Nationals aren’t winning games. But they’re not playing bad baseball.

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Nats no match for Ohtani in shutout loss (updated)


ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Nationals got to experience their first taste of the international sensation that is Shohei Ohtani pitching (and hitting) tonight. And though they put up an admirable fight against the Angels’ two-way star, they ultimately were rendered helpless against him just as everyone else has this young season.

Ohtani allowed just one hit over seven scoreless innings. He wasn’t necessarily overpowering, issuing five walks and hitting a batter, but he was mostly unhittable en route to a 2-0 victory over a Nats club that just wasn’t up to the stiffest challenge it has faced in its first 12 games of the year.

"I think it's amazing," said Nats starter Josiah Gray, a position player himself only a few years ago in college. "I was talking about it today: I wonder what his routine is. How does he fit in time to throw? How does he fit in time to hit? To see him go out there and sit 97, with a sweeper/slider and hit the ball 110 mph if not harder, it's really impressive. Every time you can sit down and watch a Shohei Ohtani start or watch him hit, it's must-watch TV. Being able to see him today and being able to face him today was an honor."

Gray wasn’t to blame for the loss; the 25-year-old right-hander allowed just two runs on four hits himself over 5 2/3 strong innings, certainly giving his team a chance. But as was the case five days ago in Denver, Gray got zero run support and was handed an undeserved loss, leaving him 0-3 overall despite a respectable 4.32 ERA.

"It stings. It's always going to sting to get an L and have your name attached to it," he said. "But I know I'm going out there, doing my job keeping the team in the game. I'm just making it simpler on myself. I'm seeing the results I want to see."

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Nats hit, hustle, bullpen their way to victory over Angels (updated)


ANAHEIM, Calif. – Eleven games into the season, we have a pretty good idea what the 2023 Nationals are and what they are not.

They are not going to beat you with home runs. They are not going to trot out a dominant starting pitcher on most nights.

They are, however, going to put the ball in play and probably rack up a good number of singles and the occasional double. They are going to try to manufacture runs in any way possible. And they are going to hope their bullpen can hang on to finish things off.

It may be a narrow path to victory, but it is possible. And when it comes together like it did tonight in a 6-4 victory over the Angels, it actually makes for quite entertaining baseball.

"It's so much fun," first baseman Dominic Smith said. "I feel like that's how we can build a winning culture. That's something that's going to be our team identity. We'll probably have a couple guys in this lineup who will hit 20 home runs, but for the most part, we're going to have to manufacture runs. And this is the way we're going to have to do it."

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On non-interference call, Thompson's success and Monday's crowd

Mason Thompson

The play looked eerily familiar, and not just because it had just happened moments earlier to the previous batter, who hit a nearly identical dribbler up the first base line.

No, for anyone who has watched the Nationals on a semi-regular basis since 2019, Manuel Margot’s little roller up the line in the top of the second Monday night immediately struck a chord. It certainly did once Trevor Williams picked up the ball and threw toward first base, only to watch as Margot (running in fair territory) ran past Dominic Smith and knocked his glove off to reach safely and then advance to second on the error.

Yep, it was the Trea Turner Play all over again. The one that nearly cost the Nationals in Game 6 of the World Series. The one that plagued Turner again two years later at Wrigley Field, not to mention Josh Bell in Miami. And led to multiple ejections for manager Davey Martinez.

Martinez didn’t get ejected this time, but he still couldn’t help but reiterate his point about the usage – or, in this case, non-usage – of Rule 5.09a(11), which states any batter-runner who is not in the designated running lane and in the judgment of the umpire interferes with the first baseman’s attempt to catch a throw shall be called out.

That’s what umpires called in the previous cases of Turner and Bell. Larry Vanover and his crew did not call it on Margot on Monday.

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Rare March "Sun Monster" wreaks havoc on Opening Day

Victor Robles leap white

Bryce Harper was the first to coin the phrase, way back on Sept. 23, 2012 when the then-rookie outfielder lost a fly ball in the sun during an afternoon game at Nationals Park.

“You can’t catch what you can’t see, you know?” Harper said that day. “Nothing you can do about it. Sun Monster got me.”

And for the last decade, anyone who has closely watched the Nationals has known to beware the Sun Monster every September. He comes out like clockwork, just as the summer humidity dissipates and the afternoon sun moves into a lower position above the upper deck at the ballpark.

In Thursday’s season opener, though, the Sun Monster made an extremely rare, late-March appearance, wreaking as much havoc on players in the field for both the Nats and Braves as perhaps it ever has.

It happened during the Nationals’ very first plate appearance of the season. Lane Thomas’ top-of-the-first popup into shallow center field appeared to make for an easy catch for either shortstop Orlando Arcia or center fielder Michael Harris II. But when Arcia called off his teammate and reached up to make the play, he recoiled in horror when he couldn’t locate the ball, which landed harmlessly on the grass for a cheap single.

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Defense, lack of clutch hitting doom Nats in opening loss (updated)


If there is going to be a semi-regular formula for the Nationals to win ballgames in 2023, it will almost certainly have to include clean defense from a revamped infield, quality pitching from a deep bullpen and timely hitting from a lineup that hits for contact better than for power.

Maybe they can pull out some curly Ws when they achieve two of those three goals. But to expect it when they only get one of them right? That’s a tall ask, as they learned this afternoon.

Despite hanging around with the defending division champions until things fell apart in the ninth, the Nationals were left to accept a 7-2 Opening Day loss to the Braves that was defined by sloppy defense and a lack of clutch hitting.

"I could tell you now, they were a little bit nervous," manager Davey Martinez said of his relatively inexperienced team. "I was a little nervous. It's part of it."

Three errors by shortstop CJ Abrams proved costly, as did a 1-for-11 showing by Nats hitters with runners in scoring position. Those combined to undermine a strong showing by the bullpen, which churned out five scoreless innings after a laboring Patrick Corbin was pulled in the top of the fourth, with only Kyle Finnegan faltering during a three-run top of the ninth that turned a close game lopsided.

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2023 Nats media season predictions


It’s Opening Day, and you know what that means? Yes, it’s time for the 14th annual Nationals Beat Writer Season Predictions!

A few of the participants have remained constant through the years. A few have come and gone and come back. And a few are still relatively new to the festivities. All of us, however, will most certainly make fools of ourselves with some of our predictions.

There’s actually a decent range of guesses in most categories this year, with general consensus in only a few of them. (Josiah Gray, apparently, is a lock to win exactly 11 games this season. Who knew?)

Everlasting thanks to my colleagues for subjecting themselves to the humiliation again. Remember, we’ll be republishing these at the end of the season to find out who actually had a clue and who did not.

And if you’re brave enough to put your (screen) name on your own predictions, you are more than welcome to share those in the comments section below …

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Starting lineups: Nats vs. Cardinals in Jupiter

Josiah Gray throwing gray

JUPITER, Fla. – While there’s been plenty of reason to fret about the Nationals rotation this spring, there hasn’t been much reason to worry about Josiah Gray. At least, not based on the right-hander’s results to date.

Gray enters today’s start against the Cardinals with a sparkling 1.42 ERA in three Grapefruit League starts. He’s allowed only one earned run across 6 1/3 innings. He’s issued only one walk while striking out six. The workload isn’t as high as others, because his last outing came on a back field against minor leaguers. But the results have been positive so far.

The lineup has a bit of a different look to it today, with CJ Abrams leading off and Victor Robles batting second. I wouldn’t read too much into that, other than Davey Martinez wanting to get both guys at-bats without having to play too deep into the game. But it’ll be nice to see how Abrams handles the leadoff spot against Cardinals right-hander Jack Flaherty.

Where: Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter
Gametime: 1:05 p.m. EDT
TV: (Cardinals broadcast)
Weather: Sunny, 76 degrees, wind 9 mph in from right field

DH CJ Abrams
CF Víctor Robles
RF Alex Call
LF Corey Dickerson
1B Matt Adams
3B Ildemaro Vargas
C Riley Adams
SS Jeter Downs
2B Michael Chavis

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Rare display of patience at plate pleases Martinez

CJ Abrams red jersey

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The Nationals aren’t going to hit for much power this season, that seems pretty safe to say.

Only three players projected to make the Opening Day roster hit double-digit home runs in the majors last year: Lane Thomas, Joey Meneses and Jeimer Candelario. Only Thomas hit more than 13 homers.

If the Nationals are going to score runs this season, they’re going to have to manufacture them. Davey Martinez acknowledges his hitters are going to have to show they can deliver in situational at-bats, whether moving a runner up with less than two outs, driving him home from third with a flyball or coming through with a two-out RBI single.

They’d also benefit from drawing a few more walks. Actually, make that a lot more walks.

The Nats didn’t do that enough last season. Their 442 walks (an average of 2.7 per game) ranked 26th in the majors. And though they’ve been a bit better this spring, they still rank 25th with only 69 walks (an average of 3.3 per game).

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Machado, Abrams return strong; Lipscomb impresses

Andres Machado

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Andres Machado walked into The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Sunday morning, only hours after he left loanDepot Park in Miami, and sought out Davey Martinez. The Nationals reliever, whose Venezuelan club had just been eliminated by the United States from the World Baseball Classic the previous night, wanted his manager to know he wanted to pitch again as soon as possible.

“I was looking for Davey and told him I’m ready to pitch today, because I had like four days (without pitching in the WBC),” Machado said. “So I’m ready if you need me, and he said yeah we’ve got a spot for you today.”

Machado would find himself trotting in from the bullpen for the top of the ninth inning against the Tigers. And then he would find himself returning to the dugout having dominated.

The 29-year-old right-hander faced three Detroit batters. He struck out all three. He got Roberto Campos looking at a changeup, then got Andrew Knapp swinging at a fastball, then got Donny Sands swinging at a slider.

Not bad for a first spring training appearance in more than a week.

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Starting lineups: Nats vs. Tigers in West Palm Beach

Lane Thomas swing white

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It’s been a warm, dry spring for the better part of a month now, but we did get one rainout last week, and now the weather pattern seems to have changed. It’s supposed to be cooler, windier and cloudier the next several days, with some possibility of rain (more so Monday than today).

The Nationals would much rather play today than not, because they need to get Chad Kuhl stretched out in time for the start of the season, now that the right-hander is likely to be the No. 5 starter. Kuhl made one other start this spring – coincidentally, it came against the Tigers in Lakeland – so he’s probably got two more opportunities to pitch before it counts.

The Nationals have eight of their nine expected regulars in the lineup today, all but Joey Meneses (who of course is still competing for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic). CJ Abrams returns after missing four days with a tight back. Davey Martinez said they’ll watch him closely, but he needs to get into regular-season mode, so they won’t ease him back in too much.

Where: The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches
Gametime: 1:05 p.m. EDT
TV: None
Radio: 980 AM,
Weather: Cloudy, 73 degrees, wind 14 mph in from left field

RF Lane Thomas
1B Dominic Smith
3B Jeimer Candelario
DH Corey Dickerson
C Keibert Ruiz
2B Luis García
SS CJ Abrams
CF Victor Robles
LF Michael Chavis

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Abrams works out, likely to return to lineup Sunday

CJ Abrams running red spring

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Though he’s out of the Nationals lineup for the fourth straight day with a tight back, CJ Abrams appears close to returning to game action, probably as soon as Sunday.

Abrams hasn’t played since Tuesday against the Mets, after which he reported tightness in his back. The 22-year-old shortstop suggested it wasn’t anything serious and that he’d be playing if this happened during the regular season.

This morning provided some confirmation of that: Abrams was a full participant in pregame drills with the rest of the starting infielders and fielded grounders, turned double plays and took batting practice with no apparent issues.

What would be the sign that Abrams was good to return to Grapefruit League games?

“Just the whole baseball activity, being on his feet,” manager Davey Martinez said this morning, before workouts. “He’s going to take swings, he’s going to hit, he’s going to do everything. And if everything goes well, hopefully he’ll play tomorrow.”

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Abrams sitting, but not concerned about back tightness

CJ Abrams batting practice

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – CJ Abrams is out of the Nationals lineup for the third straight day, the product of a seemingly minor back issue that has plagued him since Tuesday’s game against the Mets.

“My back’s a little tight, but it’s getting better every day,” the 22-year-old shortstop said. “I don’t even think it was a play or anything that happened. Just something over time.”

Neither Abrams nor manager Davey Martinez indicated the issue is anything serious. Abrams said he’s still been able to field, throw and swing: “I can do anything. Just no need to play, I guess.”

Martinez said Abrams could be back in the lineup as soon as Saturday and admitted there wouldn’t be any real concern if this was happening during the regular season: “He could play, probably.”

This brief break comes after Abrams got considerable playing time through the first month of the spring. He’s taken 28 official plate appearances so far, going 7-for-26 with a double, two RBIs and four stolen bases.

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Starting lineups: Nats vs. Yankees in Tampa

abbott in shadows @ PHI

TAMPA – The Nationals’ spring relocation from remote Viera to centrally located West Palm Beach six years ago cut their travel down to a fraction of what it used to be. Most of their road games now are played on site against the Astros or 15 minutes away in Jupiter, with a few 45-minute trips to Port St. Lucie thrown in.

There are, however, still two long trips on the Grapefruit League schedule this year. And the longest of them has come today, with the Nats making the 3 1/2-hour trek to the opposite side of the state to face the Yankees.

Given that, you can imagine Davey Martinez wasn’t going to make most of his regulars ride the bus for a seven-hour round trip. So today’s lineup features only a handful of regulars (most of them young and/or inexperienced). It also doesn’t include a member of the projected Opening Day rotation. Instead, it’s Cory Abbott (whose best chance of making the team is as a long reliever) taking the mound to face the Bronx Bombers.

There are some kids from minor league camp who were promoted for the day and given the opportunity make this trip, though, headlined by the organization’s new No. 1 prospect: Outfielder James Wood. Stay tuned for the later innings to see if he gets an at-bat.

Today’s game is being broadcast nationally on ESPN. It’s Kevin Brown, Jessica Mendoza and the great Tim Kurkjian on the call. It’s also the last game of my first stint down here this spring. Bobby Blanco has arrived in West Palm Beach and will take the beat writer reins for the next week, so be sure to follow him and read his work until I return on March 9.

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On Abrams' big debut, De La Rosa's moment and Peralta's struggles

CJ Abrams swing blue home

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The Nationals’ exhibition opener – a 3-2 victory over the Cardinals in Jupiter – was headlined by the debut of MacKenzie Gore and the debut of the pitch clock.

There was a lot more going on over the course of 2 hours, 26 minutes of fast-paced baseball, though. Here’s a look at some other notable developments from the game …

* CJ Abrams had a strong opening performance. The young shortstop got a chance to lead off and proceeded to go 2-for-3 with a single, a double, a stolen base and a strikeout that should’ve been a walk.

Abrams got things going right off the bat in the top of the first, fighting off a 2-1 cutter from Adam Wainwright for an opposite-field single. He then promptly stole second base, putting himself in position to score later on Stone Garrett’s two-out RBI single.

Abrams would add a double down the right field line in the fifth off a 1-2 curveball from left-hander Génesis Cabrera (another good sign). And he seemed to show a keen eye in the top of the second when he took a 3-2 sinker above the letters from Wainwright and started to trot toward first only to be rung up by plate umpire Carlos Torres.

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Lineup talk, and a new outfield drill on final workout day

Davey Martinez Jim Hickey Tim Bogar dugout home

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The Nationals open exhibition play Saturday, which means we’ll see the very first version of Davey Martinez’s 2023 lineup in action.

Don’t pay too much attention to the names in that lineup, though, or where they’re lined up.

Martinez said he plans to use these early Grapefruit League games as an opportunity to get certain players as many at-bats as possible before they depart. That’s why CJ Abrams will lead off Saturday against the Cardinals, with Luis García second and Joey Meneses third.

That’s not Martinez’s lineup plan for Opening Day, at least not at this point. He believes both Abrams and García could become top-of-the-order hitters in time, but that time isn’t yet. He wants to make sure both get comfortable with swing and approach changes they’ve been working on before moving up in the lineup.

“For me, it’s tricky,” Martinez said. “I don’t want to put them in a situation right away where they feel like they’ve got to get on base, they’ve got to rush. I might just let them hit at the bottom of the order first until they get going, and then we’ll see what happens.”

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Soft-spoken Abrams under the spotlight at Nats camp

CJ Abrams swing red home

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – CJ Abrams is a young man of few words. Which is perfectly fine. That’s just who he is.

The soft-spoken 22-year-old, though, is one of the central figures of the Nationals’ rebuild, a highly touted, potential franchise shortstop acquired in one of the biggest trades in major league history. The spotlight on him is particularly bright, even if he’s the type to eschew the spotlight.

“No pressure, really,” Abrams insisted Thursday morning. “Every day, like I said, getting better with the young guys, growing together, having fun, getting wins.”

That’s all Abrams cares about at the moment. He’s 22, a starting shortstop in the big leagues and part of young core of newcomers that hopes to lift the Nationals back into regular contention again.

If extra attention happens to come with that, so be it.

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Position players report, top prospects get to take some hacks

elijah green

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Position players officially reported for spring training today, and everyone was present and accounted for. Most guys had already been trickling in over the last few days, but now the entire roster is in place for good.

The first official full-squad workout is set for Tuesday morning, but all of the position players made a point to take the fields for an informal round of batting practice and defensive work. Their manager couldn’t help but notice how they looked.

“Did you watch our infield today,” Davey Martinez asked as he sat down for his daily media session. “Woooo. Man, they were moving the ball quick. We talked this winter about how it’s a quick game. Move your feet, get rid of the ball under control. Man, I was excited to see what I saw today. Double plays were crisp. They’re moving their feet. Backhands. Everything. There was good chatter, a lot of energy. It was fun to watch. I got a little excited. Hairs stood up a little bit.”

The defensive drill had the projected infield all together for the first time, with newcomers Dominic Smith (first base) and Jeimer Candelario (third base) joining the returning middle infield duo of CJ Abrams (shortstop) and Luis García (second base). For now, utility infielders Ildemaro Vargas and Jake Alu are at second base, though Martinez said both will bounce around to other positions throughout the spring.

Also bouncing around positions is Joey Meneses, whose primary job this season will be to continue hitting like he did in August and September (.930 OPS, tied with Manny Machado for tops among all qualifying National League batters). Meneses will serve as designated hitter many nights, but he’ll also get time at first base and in left field, according to Martinez.

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