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Luis Garcia Jr. of Nationals shows improvement after playing in LIDOM

There is a certain amount of pressure that comes with playing a major leaguer. Washington Nationals second baseman Luis García Jr. knows that feeling. But it doesn’t compare to the pressure he felt in the offseason, playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, his home country.

His family and friends sat in the stands and watched his every move. Instruments sounded throughout the stadium. There were cheers from the opposing fans – as well as those supporting him.

“It’s one of those places where it’s just interesting how the fans, you can be 15 for 15, but if you miss that 16th at-bat and now you’re 15 for 16, they start saying you’re no good,” García said through an interpreter. “You learn to let it come in at one end and let it out at the other end, because if you listen to it, that’s obviously not a good thing. So you learn to just concentrate, concentrate on what you’re doing and not listen to the noise.”

It was through that noise that García created a new level of focus, which has served him well this season. García was one of Washington’s best hitters, tied for second on the team in RBI (26) and second in OPS (.727) during Monday night’s game against the New York Mets. He has improved his range at second base after losing weight. He is slowly becoming the player the Nationals thought he could be.

The sound he heard was not exclusive to the Dominican Winter League. During spring training, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez made it clear that García’s job was not secure. That noise only grew when García made familiar mental mistakes in the early stages of camp. But García was at the Nationals on opening day and has only gotten better.

“I really believe his overall focus has been better throughout the game,” Martinez said. “These are conversations we had with him during spring training about what he needs to do and how I experience things with him. He’s been on top of everything. I appreciate him for making changes.”

In previous seasons, García returned to his hometown – San Francisco de Macorís – to train on a field his father built not far from García’s childhood home. He would play in the Dominican Winter League for a week or two.

But in the offseason, García played for Gigantes del Cibao for a month and a half, believing the environment would help him grow. García admitted that the insults from fans in those earlier short spells would stick in his mind. This time it taught him to concentrate.

Catcher Keibert Ruiz understands the feeling. He remembers playing in the Venezuelan winter leagues earlier in his career and experiencing a cold spell at home plate. He was sitting on the couch. When he got home, he joked that his friends told him he was unwell.

“That’s how it is. If you don’t do your job right, especially where your family comes from,” Ruiz paused and then smiled. “You just have to do your job right. … After that year of playing winter ball, this was my best year in baseball. So I think (García) has a little more confidence.”

García said the pitching in the Dominican Winter League was different than that in the Majors. He didn’t have to deal with young pitchers who were prone to mistakes. Instead, he faced veterans who knew how to target hitters’ weaknesses.

“I didn’t see any fastballs in the Dominican Republic,” García said before laughing.

García is still hunting more than a season ago; his weakness has always been breaking pitches below the strike zone. But he said he has learned how to take longer at-bats until he gets his pitch, rather than panicking, changing his mechanics and swinging at pitches he couldn’t drive.

“I think last year we had situations where he got two hits, but it was more of an emergency swing,” hitting coach Darnell Coles said. “…We are much further than that. He’s made an adjustment where he can travel the ball and make good decisions.”

García entered Monday with a .579 slugging percentage on breaking balls, the highest of his career. He credits that improvement to his new focus and his father, who helped him adapt. García explained that he has always had a flat swing. That’s why, especially against breaking balls, he hit the top of the baseball and grounded out regularly.

But this offseason, García made a minor adjustment to his elbow so he can stay under the baseball and elevate more pitches. For his career, García has a groundball rate of 53.7 percent. This season, that’s down to 45.7 percent, closer to the MLB average.

García was a defensive handicap at times a season ago, but has shown improvement there too. He previously had difficulty making routine plays. García’s above-average outs, which measure a player’s defensive range, in his first four MLB seasons: minus-7, minus-12, minus-13, minus-4. This season: 1.

“This game is all about focus,” García said. “If you don’t have focus, it’s hard to be successful.”