Slumping Thomas gets rare day off, Nats make bullpen move

NEW YORK – When the Nationals’ lineup for today’s series finale against the Mets was posted and Lane Thomas’ name was notably missing, eyebrows surely were raised within the clubhouse, the fan base and perhaps around the rest of the majors.

Such is life in the final days of July, when any player who could be on the trade block doesn’t play.

Thomas’ day off, though, is nothing more than that. Manager Davey Martinez said he had been wanting to give his right fielder a breather for a while, and with a quick turnaround from Saturday night’s rain-delayed win, this felt like the right time to do it.

“He’s good. I’ve just got to give him a day,” Martinez said. “I just wanted to give him a day off today, and he’ll come back tomorrow and be ready to go.”

Thomas started 103 of the Nationals’ first 105 games this season, and both of his days off came way back in April. His performance and importance to a lineup short on consistent production has dictated his usage, and Martinez has been hesitant to sit him at all.

But Thomas’ production has dropped off. He’s batting just .200 with a .570 OPS over his last 18 games, a slump that happens to coincide with his move down in the lineup to the No. 2 position so CJ Abrams could take over leadoff duties. It’s been a particularly rough weekend for him: 1-for-13 with six strikeouts.

“He’s just getting underneath the baseball again,” Martinez said. “We’re trying to get him back on top, get him ready in time. But he’s done unbelievable for us. I think he’s the only guy I haven’t given a day off to, so I wanted to give him today.”

Thomas’ presence on the bench will lead to a new look in the Nationals outfield. Corey Dickerson will move to right field for the first time this year, and Ildemaro Vargas will make a rare start in left field.

Conspiracy theorists may view Vargas’ presence in left ahead of Stone Garrett as a sign the Nats might be trying to showcase their utility man’s versatility in case any contenders are interested in him before Tuesday’s deadline. They did a similar thing one year ago with Ehire Adrianza and wound up dealing him to the Braves, a transaction that opened the door for Vargas to be promoted from Triple-A Rochester.

In 92 games with the Nationals over the last calendar year, Vargas has a .275 batting average, .399 slugging percentage and .706 OPS, all while playing second base, shortstop, third base, left field, right field and even pitching two scoreless innings of relief in blowouts.

“Energy. He brings energy,” Martinez said of the 32-year-old. “For me, it’s a perfect day for him to play. He’s going to give you everything he has every single time he plays. I love him. He’s engaged every day. He keeps the bench going, he keeps the clubhouse going.”

* The Nationals did make one roster move prior to today’s game, placing reliever Rico Garcia on the 15-day injured list with right biceps tendinitis and recalling Amos Willingham from Triple-A Rochester to take his place in the bullpen.

Garcia, who only made his Nats debut eight days ago, pitched in three games and gave up multiple runs in each of the last two. Following his inning of work Friday night, he informed Martinez his upper right arm was sore. Tests revealed the biceps tendinitis.

Willingham was just optioned to Rochester four days ago after allowing 11 runs on 17 hits in his first nine major league innings. The 24-year-old was allowed to return so quickly only because he’s replacing an injured teammate.

Willingham started the year at Double-A Harrisburg and quickly rose up the organizational ladder, making his big league debut in late June. The first demotion of his career may have caught him off guard, but a quick return to the majors may have surprised him even more.

“I talked to him, and I said: ‘Because you’re still so young, you made an unbelievable jump this year, we’ll take care of you. But be ready to come back,’” Martinez said. “‘Your stuff plays. You’ve just got to understand you’ve got to be able to throw strikes consistently.’”

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