Thursday, March 30

CJ Abrams’s up-and-down night ends with a walk-off hit and a Nats win

CJ Abrams capped a three-hit night Wednesday with a walk-off single, scoring Alex Call and lifting the Washington Nationals to a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves in 10 innings at Nationals Park. It was the first walk-off hit for the rookie, whose night was one of peaks and valleys.

Just two innings earlier, in a 2-2 game, the shortstop committed a cardinal sin: He failed to run out a groundball leading off the bottom of the eighth. And even when the throw pulled first baseman Matt Olson off the bag, Abrams was still out after Olson lunged for the base and beat Abrams by a half-step. Had Abrams been running at full speed, he would have easily beaten pitcher A.J. Minter’s throw.

“That can’t happen,” Abrams said. “I talked to [Manager Dave Martinez] about it. Won’t happen again, for sure.”

He redeemed himself in extra innings and put a dent in the Braves’ push for the National League East title. With two outs and runners on second and third, Abrams pounced on a change-up from Braves reliever Jackson Stephens and punched it through the hole to right field. Soon after, he received a Gatorade bath as he gave a postgame interview.

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“What I loved is that he was very poised,” Martinez said. “He took his swings and then, all of a sudden, a guy makes a good pitch. And he stayed down, stayed with it, was able to get good wood on it and put it in the hole.”

The Nationals’ win, coupled with the Mets’ rally to beat Miami, left New York with a one-game lead in the NL East as the season enters its final week.

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Abrams is starting to show the hitting prowess that made him such a coveted prospect as part of the return for Juan Soto and Josh Bell at the trade deadline Aug. 2. Martinez moved him up to second in the lineup, something he said he had wanted to do earlier in the season.

Abrams and starter Josiah Gray — key prospects who came to the Nationals at the past trade two deadlines — were crucial to Wednesday’s win. Gray, in perhaps his final start, delivered six strong innings, allowing just one run on two hits and two walks on 85 pitches, 55 for strikes.

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Washington scored in the first inning on a Luke Voit sacrifice fly, but Gray gave the run right back when he allowed a solo shot to Olson in the second. Gray jumped ahead 0-2 against Olson, then threw an outside fastball that caught too much of the plate. Olson took the ball to the opposite field for his 30th home run.

Gray uses his fastball more than any other pitch (40 percent of the time), and it can be effective for setting up the rest of his arsenal. But when he relies on it too heavily, hitters have taken advantage. Statcast considers his fastball a well below average pitch, whereas his slider rates as above average. Opponents have a .725 slugging percentage against Gray’s fastball and have hit 24 of an MLB-leading 38 homers allowed by Gray off the pitch.

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Gray threw seven fastballs in the first inning, then two in his first at-bat to Olson. Following the homer, he threw fastballs just four more times the rest of the outing and completely abandoned the pitch in the fourth and sixth innings. He relied primarily on his slider, his curveball and his sinker — which he debuted in his previous outing in Miami and prefers to throw to right-handed hitters.

The results were effective; he didn’t allow a hit after the second inning and retired 12 of the final 14 batters he faced.

“With us, a lot of us being young and the young core, there’s going to be ebbs and flows in a season,” Gray said. “So understanding that but also thinking of, ‘How are we going to look two years from now, three years from now?’ . . . As long as the team is willing to ride with us and let us fail, let us succeed, it’s going to be really fun.”

If Wednesday was his final outing, it was a solid finish to an up-and-down year for Gray, whose progression this season and in the future could mirror the Nationals’ trajectory in the future. The night started with a young pitcher in Gray and it ended with Abrams, whose success could have an effect on turning the tides for this ballclub as well.

How could Hurricane Ian affect this weekend’s series against the Philadelphia Phillies? Martinez said before the game that he hadn’t heard about any concrete plans to move this weekend’s games, but he had been told about potential contingency plans. He also hasn’t set the Nationals’ starting rotation because of potential changes.

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This series is important for Philadelphia, which leads the Milwaukee Brewers by a half-game for the final NL wild-card spot. Right now, there are four games scheduled, including a Saturday split doubleheader.

A split doubleheader is currently scheduled for Saturday. The Nationals could play a split doubleheader Friday instead, followed by single games Saturday and Sunday. If the teams are unable to play because of rain Saturday and Sunday, the Phillies could come back Oct. 6 to make up the remaining game(s) before the playoffs begin.

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