Nationals’ CJ Abrams homers twice in win over Pirates

PITTSBURGH — During batting practice before Monday night’s game at PNC Park, Washington Nationals players took turns trying to launch home runs to right field, attempting to send a ball into the nearby Allegheny River.

CJ Abrams’s last swing didn’t send the ball flying out of the park; it landed in the seats instead. But moments later, he and Ildemaro Vargas mimicked their home run celebrations, saluting the dugout as they jumped together and ran around the bases.

Practice was prelude for Abrams, who blasted two home runs to right in the Nationals’ 6-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates for the first multihomer game of the 22-year-old’s career. The first, a two-run shot in the third inning, might have ended up in the water had it bounced off the concourse and not a yellow umbrella. The second, a solo blast in the seventh, was a line drive with an exit velocity of 111 mph that continued to rise nearly until the moment it slammed into the seats.

“Was just looking for my pitch,” Abrams said. “Anything in the middle of the plate. And I got two good pitches to hit, and I didn’t miss them.”

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Abrams provided a jolt to the Nationals’ lineup Monday after he missed Sunday’s home loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He banged his knee sliding into a base Saturday and sat out Sunday with a sore knee. He didn’t miss a beat Monday.

“If you watch him take batting practice, it’s in there,” Manager Dave Martinez said of Abrams’s power. “… He’s giving himself a chance to hit every pitch hard. … 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.”

When Abrams jumped into the leadoff spot right before the all-star break, the move seemed to light a fire under him. He grew more patient, waiting for his pitch. His selectivity paid immediate dividends. Abrams hit .327, stole 16 bases and walked nine times in July.

He endured an August lull, hitting .223 for the month with just two walks, though the stolen bases (13) kept coming at nearly the same pace. But he entered Monday’s game hitting .273 in September, and games such as Monday’s could help fuel a strong finish to his first full major league season.

“You see him go through little struggles, but he sticks with it, and it just shows his maturity,” first baseman Dominic Smith said. “We go as he goes. He’s at the top of the lineup, and for him to do what he did shows how amazing he is as a player.”

The left-handed-hitting Abrams has established himself as a pull hitter. He entered Monday batting .413 with 12 home runs, 12 doubles and 36 RBI on balls that he pulls, according to FanGraphs. He’s hitting .236 on balls he hits to center field and .298 to the opposite field.

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“He gets himself ready early,” Martinez said. “He’s able to make an adjustment on the ball, and that’s been the big difference. We’ve tried really hard for him to stay on plane and stay on top of the baseball and to make sure that his foot is down early and on time. He’s done that, and that’s where you’re seeing all this power come from.”

His first home run, on a high change-up, gave the Nationals (65-79) a 2-0 lead. Bryan Reynolds responded with a two-out RBI single in the bottom half to halve the Pirates’ deficit. The Nationals scored two runs in the fourth to extend their lead before Smith added a solo shot in the sixth.

That was more than enough for Patrick Corbin, whose slider gave the Pirates fits. Corbin threw 51 sliders, and the Pirates (66-78) swung at 21 of them. missing 14 in his 6⅔ innings. He recorded eight strikeouts, and seven came on sliders, including three in the fifth inning. Ji Hwan Bae swung through a slider in the dirt, Jared Triolo whiffed on a slider that painted the black, and Alika Williams chased another in the dirt.

Corbin’s outing made for minimal work for the bullpen. Jordan Weems covered 1⅓ innings before Jose A. Ferrer pitched the ninth.

Abrams provided all the support the Nationals’ pitching staff would need. On each home run, he saluted his teammates as he rounded first base. Practice makes perfect.

Note: The Nationals promoted two of their 2023 draft picks, third baseman Yohandy Morales and outfielder Andrew Pinckney, from high Class A Wilmington to Class AA Harrisburg. Wilmington’s season ended Sunday, so the pair will play in Harrisburg for the final week of the season.

Morales, the team’s second-round pick, and Pinckney, a fourth-rounder, have moved in tandem. After cameos in the Florida Complex League, both were at low Class A Fredericksburg with No. 2 pick Dylan Crews. They were promoted to Wilmington in late August, when Crews jumped straight to Harrisburg. Now the trio are back together.

In 38 games across three levels, Morales has a .931 OPS with 15 doubles and four triples. He has yet to hit a home run but has still been productive. Pinckney has a .331 batting average and a .916 OPS in 37 games. He has eight doubles, a triple and four home runs.

Though it’s just for a few games, Morales and Pinckney join a Harrisburg lineup filled with talent. Along with Crews, the Senators also have James Wood, Robert Hassell III and Brady House.

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