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OC Register: Angels shortstop Zach Neto soaking up lessons this spring

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TEMPE Ariz. – The Angels’ version of the Breakfast Club rises before dawn and takes the half field behind the batting cages not long after the sun rises.

Angels shortstop Zach Neto is there to work on his defense, not taking for granted the skill that wowed observers in his standout rookie season of 2023. On hand to provide early-morning instruction is none other than new manager Ron Washington.

A longtime coach and manager, Washington played the majority of his 10 major league seasons as a middle infielder, mostly at shortstop. Infield play is Washington’s passion and he immediately has become passionate about Neto.

“Oh, there is a ton to like. Not a lot, a ton,” Washington said of his 23-year-old shortstop.

On a quiet recent morning, with only the sound of great-tailed grackle squawking in the background, Washington conducted a backhand fielding drill. The middle infielders took their positions, with Washington a mere 25-30 feet away holding a bat near a bucket of baseballs. Washington drilled short hops to the backhand side, leaving little time to react.

“I showed (Neto) some stuff out there on the backhand side and he just took to it,” Washington said. “It looked a little shaky in the beginning but then, all of a sudden, he got a feel for it. Now, it looks like something he’s always been able to do.

“He has that acumen. You can see he comes from a good (college) program. You give him something and he’s able to apply (it).”

Neto is open to any and all instruction from Washington.

“He has a lot of wisdom, a lot of knowledge about this game, a lot of years in this game,” Neto said. “A young guy like me, being able to learn something new from him, it’s like candy for a kid at Halloween.”

A star shortstop at Campbell, south of the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina, Neto was selected by the Angels as the 13th overall draft pick in 2022. Less than a year after he was drafted and attended his final college class, Neto was in the major leagues when he made his debut April 15 last season.

In short order, he erased any doubt that a player from the Big South Conference could make an immediate impact. The defense transferred right away, with the offense already showing improvement this spring.

Another area Neto hopes to improve is with an ability to stay on the field. The grind of a major league season took its toll with Neto missing time with oblique and lower back injuries.

He played just over half of the Angels games last season but his impact was evident in the team’s 43-41 record when he was on the field and 30-48 mark when he was not.

“Going into the offseason, it was something I needed to work on, getting my body right,” Neto said. “I looked at it as a restart button for me. New (coaching) staff, new everything, new year for me coming up. Coming into spring training, it was head down, nice and easy, no more (first-season) pressure or anything like that.”

Neto said he did core work to help avoid soft tissue injuries in and around his torso. A byproduct of that work seems to be an uptick in power, at least from early Cactus League results.

Neto clobbered a towering home run approximately 450 feet to straightaway center field last week against the Cleveland Guardians. He smashed another to left field Monday against the Texas Rangers.

On offense last season, Neto batted .225 with a .685 OPS that was 26th among shortstops who played at least 80 games. In his final season at Campbell, he had a .407 batting average with a 1.283 OPS in 53 games.

Through Tuesday’s Cactus League games, Neto was batting .333 (7-for-21) with 16 total bases and a 1.110 OPS. He had two stolen bases, both Tuesday in a 4-0 victory over the Dodgers, along with a hit, a run scored and a leaping catch on a line drive.

While Neto might be young, with a small sample size to judge his offense as a major leaguer, he has seen enough to feel confident about the player he can become in short order.

That all-glove-no-stick tag that surfaced last season?  Neto said he heard it and is up for the challenge.

“Oh yeah, it’s gonna be fun proving people wrong,” Neto said. “That’s what I’ve always been about my whole life. So here, at the biggest stage, if there are people still doubting, it just keeps creating that underdog mentality and chip on my shoulder to keep proving people wrong.

“I just gotta keep trusting myself, having that confidence and going out there and having fun.”

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