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Ildemaro Vargas, motivated by mom, is giving himself a shot with the Nats

Ildemaro Vargas is giving himself a chance to stick with the Nationals beyond this season. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO — The interview was over — the questions covering his defense, his homer off Yu Darvish and his chance to prove himself with the Washington Nationals in the twilight of a lost season — but Ildemaro Vargas had something to add. Smiling as he spoke in Spanish through a team interpreter, Vargas wanted to thank his mother for predicting his success at Petco Park on Thursday night. He also wanted to look into the camera and say he loved her.

Visa issues have kept Gaudys Barreto from traveling to the United States to watch her son play. Instead, she often calls from Venezuela in the afternoon, reminding Vargas of her tough-love lessons. Thirty-one-year-olds can still listen to their moms. Vargas, then, can still hear Barreto denying him arepas if he didn’t hit as a kid.

He called her his first and favorite hitting coach, her name inked onto his arm in big orange letters. They have not seen each other since Vargas visited home in January. Before he faced Darvish on Thursday, Barreto told her son to be ready for the fastball. A bit of pregame studying lined up with the advice: Vargas noticed how, when he faced the Padres this past weekend, they attacked him in the zone, the ideal pitches coming early in the count. So in the top of the third, he got a 1-0 cutter in his sweet spot and crushed it. Three innings later, he swung at a first-pitch, middle-in cutter and singled, collecting the Nationals’ only two hits off Darvish in the first seven frames.

“It’s my routine every day,” Vargas said of chatting with Barreto. “She always motivates me, tells me to enjoy the game.”

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Offense is not Vargas’s calling card. But since he joined the Nationals on Aug. 1, replacing Ehire Adrianza after he was traded to the Atlanta Braves, Vargas has a .341 batting average and .362 on-base percentage in the tiny sample of 47 plate appearances. He’s starting at third most days, with Manager Dave Martinez wanting to improve his team’s defense, putting a strong fielder next to rookie shortstop CJ Abrams on the left side. Bouncing between the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs, Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh Pirates and Nationals in parts of six major league seasons, Vargas has mostly split his time between shortstop, third and second. Recording outs is his main tool.

And the past two Octobers, Washington has re-signed a reclaimed utility man to a one-year, $1 million contract, choosing not to fill that need on the open market. First it was Josh Harrison, then 33, after he was signed to a minor league deal before the 2020 season. Next it was Alcides Escobar, then 34, last fall after he arrived in a midseason trade with the Kansas City Royals. Two months from now, Vargas, currently on a minor league deal, will be younger than Harrison or Escobar were and somewhere between the expected production for each. He has a far worse bat than Harrison, who wound up returning prospects in a trade in July 2021, but is a significantly better defender. Escobar, designated for assignment in June, was solid a year ago but just about unusable this season.

It is far too early to start projecting the Nationals’ roster for 2023. Yet Vargas is giving himself a shot to stick. If he remains on the 40-man roster through the end of the season, he would stay under Washington’s control, making it so the club might not have to look elsewhere for a utility man.

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“We knew [Vargas] could field his position anywhere we put him,” Martinez said Thursday night. “We also knew that he brought a lot of energy. He’s a guy, honestly, in our clubhouse and our dugout, he’s always fired up and ready to go. I love that. Especially with some of the young kids, he gets them going.”

At this stage of Washington’s rebuild, those characteristics bode well for Vargas. The Nationals are unlikely to indulge much in free agency this winter unless a potential new ownership brings a sharp change in direction. If the next offseason is like the last one, they will seek stopgap veterans who are either cheap or could net prospects at the deadline (or both). Those players would holds spots while the club sees who might emerge from the minors. They are the expendable yet necessary pieces of a stripped-to-nothing team that had to totally reset its farm system.

From certain angles, Vargas is a more viable option than Escobar and Maikel Franco were, if only because his defense could help along what promises to be a young rotation. Limiting errors and miscues — and thus limiting extra pitches for budding starters — feels like a better path than stressing about offense with Vargas or a similar player. Back in spring, Vargas was DFA’d by the Cubs after he logged three hits in 26 plate appearances. He then joined the Rochester Red Wings, Washington’s Class AAA affiliate, and posted a .224 average, .301 on-base percentage and .322 slugging percentage in 48 games.

But advanced metrics and the eye test show the Nationals have had the worst defense in the majors this year. And their staff and team morale has sometimes suffered for it.

The infield of the Nationals’ immediate future could be Abrams at shortstop, Luis García at second and Carter Kieboom getting another crack at third after he underwent Tommy John surgery in May. Depending on how the season closes, Luke Voit and Joey Meneses are candidates for first base. Then perhaps Vargas fills the holes behind them all, following Harrison’s and Escobar’s path to a guaranteed role.

“I don’t know how he spent so much time in the minors,” said Aníbal Sánchez, who started Thursday and benefited from the surprise pop in Vargas’s bat. “But he’s really good here.”