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At long last, Nationals have a double play combo that can grow together

The Nationals have big plans for CJ Abrams and Luis García. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS — When Dave Martinez went to write out his lineup Wednesday afternoon, he wanted to rest rookie CJ Abrams and needed a shortstop. So he slid Ildemaro Vargas from third to short, plugged in César Hernández at third and kept Luis García at second, where García has exclusively played since returning from the injured list in late August.

One implication was that, once and for all, García is the Washington Nationals’ second baseman and will have every opportunity to stick there. And if the Nationals’ plan unfolds to their liking, Abrams will be right beside him, giving the club its first stable double play combination of Martinez’s tenure. In 2018, Martinez’s first year as manager, Trea Turner was at shortstop and Daniel Murphy was the bat-first second baseman until he was traded toward the end of summer. For the next 2½ seasons, Turner was the constant while his partner kept rotating, the cast including Brian Dozier, Howie Kendrick, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Adrián Sanchez, Starlin Castro, Wilmer Difo, García, Hernán Pérez (very briefly), Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer and Alcides Escobar.

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Before Turner was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, there was that one series — you remember it — when Humberto Arteaga started a game at shortstop and catcher Alex Avila hurt himself playing second. After Turner was traded, Escobar replaced him and García took second along with scattered appearances for Mercer. Then this season, ahead of another deadline shake-up, Escobar and Hernández were the pair until García got his last opportunity as an out-of-position shortstop.

Then Abrams arrived and García moved to where he should be. Finally, the Nationals could have consistency at two spots critical for sound team defense.

“It feels very natural, very comfortable,” García said Tuesday of working with Abrams. “We played together for the first time against Cincinnati [on Aug. 26], and it seemed like it had already been three years or something. It was cool.”

Why does García think that is?

“We have similar ages, you know?” the 22-year-old answered. “He is 21. We talk all the time, in the clubhouse, at the hotel. CJ is my friend.”

“I’m watching them grow,” Martinez said. “As every day goes by, I’m watching those two guys and how well they communicate with one another, how well they handle each other. It’s been a lot of fun, and they enjoy each other’s company a lot. They really do. I mean, you see them out there, you see them laughing, but yet you see them in tune with what’s going on.”

That’s exactly what the Nationals want out of two potential pillars. When they first took groundballs last month in San Diego, when García was still on the IL with a groin strain, García noticed how Abrams wanted everything to be perfect. On double plays, Abrams likes the flips to him to be chest-high. García does, too, making it easy for him to fulfill that request.

García has looked much more comfortable since shifting back to second. And anecdotally, the fielding has improved at least four positions in recent weeks: Abrams at short instead of García; Vargas at third instead of Maikel Franco; Lane Thomas or Alex Call in left instead of Yadiel Hernandez; and Joey Meneses in right instead of Juan Soto, who was having the worst defensive season of his career before he was traded to the San Diego Padres on Aug. 2.

Abrams has a ton of range and is refining his footwork and arm. The two are often connected, with third base coach Gary DiSarcina saying he wants Abrams to “stay in his legs” and not “pop up” when throwing to first. DiSarcina and bench coach Tim Bogar train the team’s infielders, a task that became much bigger when Abrams was acquired in the six-player package for Soto and Josh Bell. Martinez has noticed Vargas, a strong defender, also helping the young guys with position and pre-pitch preparation.

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It will take a mix of coaches, veterans and two willing learners to steer through the growing pains ahead. Plus Abrams and García have each other as built-in sounding boards. Abrams, who has faced questions about whether he can stick at short long-term, has played only 67 games in the majors. García has appeared in 182, making him the more senior member of a fresh-faced duo.

“We’re not doing clinic baseball where we got three guys doing the same thing over and over again,” DiSarcina said of molding the middle infielders. “ … One of the most important things at this level, with young players, is to individualize it. Don’t just lump them all in and say: ‘Hey, you need to do this. You need to that. You need to this.’ What do you individually need to do to get better? That’s how you develop everybody, and just start checking things off their list.”