With winning West Coast trip, young Nats showing real progress

LOS ANGELES – At the end of a 10-day, three-city jaunt that included stops in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, CJ Abrams was asked how long the Nationals’ just-completed road trip felt.

“It feels long,” the shortstop said. “We’re excited to get back home and beat some more people up.”

Abrams said this with his usual soft voice, no emphasis on that last phrase, so it was easy to gloss right over it. But in those few words, the brightest young star on the Nationals conveyed what many in the clubhouse are beginning to sense.

This team isn’t content with simply making progress anymore. This team is ready to start winning, no matter the level of competition it’s facing.

Overall, the Nationals head home with an 8-10 record that doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence. But dig deeper, and it’s not hard to see how this team is starting to come together, and how there’s reason to believe the results are going to keep getting better as this season plays out.

The Nats just went 5-4 on the West Coast. They did so by winning series against the Giants and Dodgers but losing two of three to the Athletics.

The San Francisco series included a takedown of reigning Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, a bunch of big hits by Abrams and a whole lot of stolen bases by a number of players. The Los Angeles series included a win by Mitchell Parker in his major league debut, a second straight gem by Jake Irvin, a good offensive showing against one of the game’s best starters in Tyler Glasnow and some lockdown relief work against one of the most daunting lineups in the sport.

And that Oakland series? Well, the Nationals easily could’ve swept the young A’s, losing the opener in 10 innings while going 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position and then blowing a five-run lead in the finale.

These guys are still learning how to win close games sometimes, and that has led to a few agonizing results. But they’ve also responded in each case with quality performances, showing no lingering effects from whatever happened the previous day.

“They’re fighters,” manager Davey Martinez said after Wednesday’s 2-0 win. “They play with a lot of passion, a lot of heart. The energy was really good today. To get a win today going back to the East Coast was awesome. Playing the Dodgers, it’s a great place to play here. We feel really good about going back on that plane now. We came out to the West Coast, it’s never easy, but we did well.”

It’s also important to note who is most responsible for the games the Nationals win: Mostly young building blocks. They’ve gone 7-5 in games started by MacKenzie Gore, Irvin, Parker, Joan Adon and Trevor Williams (who isn’t a young building block but has pitched well in all three of his outings). They’re 1-5 in games started by Patrick Corbin and Josiah Gray (who subsequently went on the 15-day injured list with a forearm strain).

“We’re just trying to be consistent,” said Irvin, who has allowed one run and five hits over his last 12 innings. “We’re trying to come to the ballpark every day ready to play, and I think that we’re showing we can do that.”

At the plate, Abrams is leading the way with consistently electric performances atop the lineup. The 23-year-old is slashing .295/.358/.656 through 15 games, with 10 extra-base hits (five homers), a team-high 11 RBIs and three steals. Over the last five games, his first-inning at-bats resulted in two doubles, a single and a leadoff homer. Under the bright lights of Dodger Stadium, with loads of star power coming out of the opposing dugout, Abrams still stood out from the crowd.

“We’re having fun out there,” he said. “We’re going out there and just playing baseball. Not playing too tight, just having fun. And good things happen.”

The rest of the offense has been erratic, but Jesse Winker has proven to be a surprising force at the plate, Luis Garcia Jr. has looked much improved in all aspects of the game and Riley Adams has done an admirable job filling in for the ill Keibert Ruiz over the last week.

And the bullpen, while culpable for a couple of notable blowups, has been good more often than not. Hunter Harvey, Dylan Floro, Jordan Weems and Matt Barnes all have ERAs under 3.00. Robert Garcia has struck out 13 batters in only eight innings. And Kyle Finnegan, since his ugly ninth inning in Cincinnati to close out the season’s first weekend, hasn’t allowed an earned run since, leads the league with seven saves and sports a 3.24 ERA.

All of that combined to make for a good recipe for success out west, culminating with this week’s two wins over the Dodgers. And perhaps set the framework for more success still to come.

“We play good on the road. We’ve done that the last couple years,” Harvey said. “To come in here and beat this caliber of a team is awesome. Hopefully we can take this and keep building from it and continue to win.”

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