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Washington Nationals news & notes: CJ Abrams & sneaky pop

Notes and quotes on the Nationals’ shortstop...

CJ Abrams hit his first grand slam in April of this past season, hit his first leadoff home run in August, and put together his first two-home run game in September.

Abrams’ 18 home runs on the year were four more than he’d hit in three pro seasons’ worth of at-bats before last year.

His manager, Davey Martinez, said it did not really surprise him Abrams had that power in his game.

“If you watch him take batting practice, it’s in there,” Martinez told reporters after the two-homer game in September. “Now it’s transforming into the game.

“Reason being … he’s giving himself a chance to hit every pitch hard. I always said, when he really learns how to shrink the strike zone, he’s going to be an All-Star.

“He’s going to be something else, so he’s done well.”

Abrams said the increase in power was a result of getting more comfortable at the plate.

“Just more comfortable up there, I’d say,” the 23-year-old shortstop explained.

“Getting my pitch. Less antsy and anxious swinging at everything. If I can stay with that approach, I’ll be good.”

His manager noted Abrams hit the two homers to right (417 and 383 ft., respectively), and said he was developing an increasing ability to pull the ball.

“He gets himself ready early, so he’s able to make adjustments to the ball in,” Martinez said.

“And that’s been the big difference. We’re trying really hard just to — one, for him to stay on plane, stay on top of the baseball, and two, is to make sure his foot’s down early and on time, he’s done that and that’s where you’re seeing all this power come from.”

“Just kind of more direct to the ball,” Abrams said more succinctly.

“Shorter swing. Simplify. For sure.”

The increased power and success at the plate was one of several signs his skipper saw of Abrams’ increased maturity, with a move to the leadoff spot in early July one thing which Martinez pointed to as a turning point.

“He’s been awesome,” Martinez said.

“I think a lot of it was when I gave him the responsibility to lead off, and we talked about that. That was big for him, and I just asked him if he thinks he could do it, and he said, ‘Yeah.’ And he’s done it. So, I’m proud of the way he goes about his business, his routine has been way better, so he’s getting himself ready to play every day, he’s taking care of his body, and you see what a difference that makes.”

Martinez talked again about Abrams’ maturity after the speedy infield set Washington’s single-season stolen base record with two stolen bases in the final game of the year.

“He’s been getting better and better every day,” the sixth-year skipper said.

“I hope he understands what kind of player he really, truly, could be, because he could be an impact player moving forward. I loved his energy the last few months, he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. I just talked to him before you guys got in and I told him I was very proud of what he did, very proud of how he turned himself around, and that we got to keep moving forward, and he totally agreed.”

Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo, who made the trade with the San Diego Padres in 2022 which brought Abrams (and four other highly-regarded prospects) to D.C. for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, talked late this past season about Abrams turning into the sort of player they thought he might be when they acquired him. And no, the pop in Abrams’ bat was not a surprise for the GM in D.C. either.

“We always saw the pop,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies. “The pop was evident when we scouted him before the trade and that type of thing. But what I think the difference is now is what [Hitting Coach] Darnell [Coles] and Davey have really done well with him: is to teach him what is his happy zone, and what is his zone that he should stay away from swinging. They used to get him with four-seamers up and then breaking balls down, and I think you can see a little bit of an adjustment there over the season where he’s now kind of laying off the pitches that he can’t handle as well and kind of looking for pitches in certain counts that he can drive.

“And I don’t think it’s an accident that some first-pitch changeups he’s hitting out of the park in big situations because he’s a studier, he’s a video guy, and he’s a guy that takes instruction well from Darnell Coles and Davey Martinez. He’s got a bright future at [23].

“I said it at the draft, there’s about 1,000 players that were older than him in this year’s draft, and this guy has already got a year under his belt in the big leagues.

“So, bright future, great kid, energy guy, speed guy, athletic, tools, and just starting to put his mark on what his career could look like.”