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Nationals’ Opening Day loss underscores the pain of this rebuild

Nationals shortstop CJ Abrams reacts after striking out in the ninth inning of Thursday's opener. Abrams went 0 for 4 at the plate and made three errors in a 7-2 loss to the Braves at Nationals Park. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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A routine groundball bounded toward shortstop CJ Abrams off the bat of Ronald Acuña Jr. with two runners on and one out in the second inning. The sequence itself wasn’t special; a double play would end the inning, and anything else would keep it alive.

It’s the kind of play fans take for granted during the season, miss during the winter and get excited for on a chillier-than-usual Opening Day such as Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park. But for these young, inexperienced Washington Nationals, focusing on the fundamentals to make even the simplest play is central to the early stages of a rebuild.

Abrams shifted to his left, reached down and saw the ball bounce off his glove, the first of the shortstop’s three errors. This one loaded the bases for the Atlanta Braves, who beat the Nationals, 7-2.

“These are going to be some of the growing pains that we have, right?” Manager Dave Martinez said. “A teaching moment. We’re going to teach him, get him to understand. But overall, I saw some good things out there as well.”

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So began a Nationals season filled with uncertainty. One in which the sale of the team remains in flux. One in which Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo — who have expressed their desire to see this team’s rebuild through — are in the final years of their contracts. One in which many of the 35,756 who filed into the park are looking toward players such as Abrams, young potential stars who could be crucial parts of that rebuild.

When the team was introduced to fireworks under a bright blue sky, some of the loudest cheers were for Martinez and Sean Doolittle, who won’t start with the team because he’s still working his way back from elbow surgery last season. They are two of the remaining vestiges from Washington’s 2019 World Series team.

Juan Soto was shipped off at last year’s trade deadline. Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Bryce Harper now play for division rivals. Anthony Rendon plays across the country. Stephen Strasburg, who occupies a huge chunk of the team’s payroll, hasn’t resumed baseball activities, according to Rizzo. The pitcher suffered a setback throwing this offseason trying to return from complications of thoracic outlet syndrome that ended his 2022 season. Strasburg, 34, has thrown just 31⅓ innings since the Nationals won the World Series and he signed a seven-year, $245 million deal.

So the Nationals’ hopes are in the hands of players such as Josiah Gray, 25, and Keibert Ruiz, 24, who took part in their second Opening Day and got some of the loudest cheers during introductions along with Abrams, 22, and MacKenzie Gore, 24. Luis García, 22, in his second Opening Day, got softer cheers. Missing was Cade Cavalli, 24, the well-regarded pitching prospect who had Tommy John surgery this month.

Highlights from Nationals Opening Day

Their development is crucial to a team coming off a major league-worst 55-107 record in 2022. And that development comes with mistakes along the way.

Abrams’s first error was part of a three-run Braves second and contributed to a short outing for Patrick Corbin, making his third Opening Day start. He threw just 48 of his 85 pitches for strikes, working from behind in most counts. His start didn’t provide encouragement that he has distanced himself from his struggles of a year ago, when he led the majors in losses and earned runs allowed.

“Maybe not as aggressive in the zone,” Corbin said of his outing. “They’re a great lineup. You make a mistake, and they’ll take you out of the ballpark. But I though my slider was pretty good today, just maybe a bit off on fastballs on both sides of the plate.”

Corbin’s afternoon ended after a leadoff double from Matt Olson in the fourth. The Braves loaded the bases with no outs, then Olson scored on a routine double play to give the Braves a 4-1 lead.

Abrams’s second error — this one on a throw that sailed high — came in the fifth inning and left the shortstop with his hands on his hips in frustration. Still, the Braves didn’t score in the inning, and the Nationals inched closer after Joey Meneses hit a two-out RBI single that scored Victor Robles. It was the Nationals’ only hit with runners in scoring position; they went 1 for 11 in such situations.

The defending NL East champions Braves tacked on three runs in the ninth — two on a double by Travis d’Arnaud off Kyle Finnegan and a third on Abrams’s third error, when his relay throw to third was off target.

“Maybe I rushed them,” Abrams said about the throwing errors. “On the play at third, I probably should’ve held it, but it happens.”

Martinez knows his young team will make mistakes. Over the course of a 162-game season, the sixth-year manager — along with many Nationals fans — wants to see what these players take from their miscues.

“They’re young, and they’re going to learn,” Martinez said. “I’m not going to get down on these guys. I can tell you that. … We’re going to see some good things, and we’re going to see some not-so-good things. But we got to keep playing, keep their heads up high and keep playing hard.”