Award winners named, Rutledge to start Sunday, Ward to pitch in AFL

Lane Thomas had already been named the Nationals’ Player of the Year last season. Then the outfielder went and improved every facet of his game to earn the honor again this season.

Thomas’ selection as 2023 Player of the Year was announced today, and he joined Kyle Finnegan (Pitcher of the Year) and Josiah Gray (Good Guy Award) in accepting their awards on the field prior to tonight’s game against the Braves.

Voting for all three awards was conducted by local media members and submitted at the start of the week.

Thomas won the award last year in large part because Juan Soto and Josh Bell were traded two months earlier, leaving his .705 OPS, 17 homers and 52 RBIs as some of the best numbers among the team’s remaining players. This time, he outperformed several others who deserved consideration, ultimately winning on the strength of a dominant first half and a late resurgence of power.

Thomas enters tonight’s game with a .271 batting average, .790 OPS, 96 runs, 160 hits, 34 doubles, 26 homers and 84 RBIs, along with 19 stolen bases and 17 outfield assists (tops in the majors).

“He’s been unbelievable,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Not just because of the home runs, but his overall play. He’s getting better and better. I say it all the time: I still don’t think he has reached his full potential. I think there’s still more there in the tank, and you’ll see it. But he’s developed this confidence … and I saw that this year.”

Finnegan is also a two-time award winner, having been named Pitcher of the Year in 2021 before watching ex-teammate Erasmo Ramirez take that honor last season and then re-taking it for himself this season.

The 32-year-old closer enters the day with a 3.66 ERA, 26 saves and a 1.296 WHIP, but those numbers looked better a few weeks ago before a September slide. Over a four-month stretch that included 48 appearances, he delivered a 1.42 ERA and 0.972 WHIP, converting 15 consecutive save opportunities.

Gray earned his first Good Guy Award, which is presented to a player for “his always-professional dealings with members of the media, his work in the community and for representing the Nationals organization with class both on and off the field.”

The 25-year-old right-hander, an All-Star for the first time in his career, was also named the Nationals’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award. He is player ambassador to the team’s Youth Baseball Academy and designed a clothing collection with lifestyle brand Leovici, with a portion of the proceeds donated to the academy.

* Jackson Rutledge will start the finale of this weekend’s series, which is scheduled for Sunday afternoon but could be pushed back to Monday if forecasted heavy rain and wind forces the postponement of any games (particularly on Saturday).

Rutledge will assume the spot that would have gone to Trevor Williams before the club decided to give the struggling right-hander a break after a string of rough starts that left his ERA at a season-high 5.55.

* The Nationals will send eight players to the Arizona Fall League next month, including a few ranked prospects and some other notable names.

Outfielder Robert Hassell III and infielder Trey Lipscomb headline the group that will play for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the AFL, a fall league for some of baseball’s top prospects. They’ll be joined by catcher Israel Pineda and pitchers DJ Herz, Holden Powell, Orlando Ribalta, Jack Sinclair and Thaddeus Ward.

Ward, the top pick in last winter’s Rule 5 draft, will be a rare AFL assignee who spent much of this season in the major leagues. After a lengthy stint on the injured list with shoulder inflammation, though, the Nationals want the right-hander to get more work, specifically as a starter.

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