Thomas comfortable in reduced role this year after strong 2021 with Nats

MIAMI – Lane Thomas arrived in D.C. last summer after a trade with the Cardinals for Jon Lester. He was one of 12 prospects the Nationals received in return for selling off eight of their veteran players. Of those prospects, he’s now one of four currently impacting the major league roster.

In 45 games with the Nationals during last season’s second half, Thomas slashed .270/.364/.489 with an .853 OPS, 33 runs scored, 14 doubles, two triples, seven home runs, 27 RBIs, four stolen bases and 27 walks. Meanwhile, Lester (who went 3-5 with a 5.02 ERA in 16 starts with the Nats) went 4-1 with a 4.36 ERA in 12 starts with the Cards before retiring over the offseason.

The trade was a steal for the Nationals.

In fact, Thomas played so well, he replaced former top prospect Victor Robles full-time in center field and the leadoff spot. Robles, of course, was sent down to Triple-A Rochester and never returned to the majors in 2021.

This year, however, their roles have changed. With Robles expected to be the full-time center fielder and Thomas full-time in left coming into the season, they are now sharing time in center while Yadiel Hernandez stays hot at the plate and mans left field.

“He gets it, he understands,” manager Davey Martinez said Monday of Thomas’ reduced role. “And I told him, I'm gonna try to get him out there as many times as I can. Right now, because Yadi's hitting so well, we got to keep him in the lineup. I mean, he's stretching our lineup out pretty good right now. But (Thomas is) gonna get an opportunity. I always tell these guys, everybody has a chance to play. So he's gonna stay ready.”

That is something Thomas is familiar with, staying ready to play without actually going out there every day.

“I've been in the role before,” he said in front of his locker before Tuesday’s game against the Marlins. “Just kind of getting some spots starts off lefties. Obviously, I think I'm getting more than that, definitely played quite a bit. But I think it's just kind of showing up and being ready for whatever that day throws at you. I think just doing what the team needs you to do that day. So I've been trying to keep, you know, play well on defense and do whatever he asks right now. So I think if you start thinking about it as in like, I'm not getting enough opportunity, then it kind of affects your game. Obviously, I want to play as much as they need me, so I'm ready for whatever they throw at me.”

Like he said, you never know what this game is going to throw at you. And this week was a good example of how Thomas has to be ready for anything this season.

On Monday, he had to be ready when he was thrown into the fire at the last minute. Nelson Cruz was a late scratch from the lineup with an illness, so Thomas was forced into left field while Hernandez moved into the designated hitter role.

On Tuesday, he made a pinch-hitting appearance with two runners on base in the ninth inning.

And on Wednesday, he started the game in center field and played there for seven innings before moving over to left field when Robles entered the game as a pinch-runner and took over in center.

“I think I've had a lot of experience coming in off the bench,” Thomas said. “So I think that kind of prepares you for that. Because you never know what's gonna happen in a game. If someone gets hurt or like (Monday) someone not feeling well or whatever happens. So I think I've had some experience with that in the past. And I think it does you some good down the road, being prepared for those situations.”

“Yeah, he absolutely has to stay ready,” Martinez said. “And with that being said, it's not just about the hitting. It's about his defense, playing left, playing center, and just keep himself ready to go. I mean, you never know. I always tell these guys, you never know what's going to happen. And he got off to a slow start, he started swinging a little bit better. But I told him, just stay up, stay ready. We'll get you out there. When you get out there, just play hard.”

Thomas has made 23 appearances in left field and 10 in center field. But he has shared more time in center lately while Hernandez has solidified himself in the lineup in left.

“I've obviously played center more in my lifetime, so obviously comfortable there,” Thomas said. “But yeah, man, playing left, I feel like, for myself, it's been good to just take live stuff off the bat in BP. And it seems to help a lot, so I'm getting a lot more comfortable there, too. So it's been good.”

Offensively, Thomas isn’t having the same success that he had with the Nats to end last season. Through 32 games, he’s slashing .202/.255/.270 with a .535 OPS, five runs scored, three doubles, one homer, 12 RBIs, one stolen base, six walks and 29 strikeouts.

“I think with just not beating yourself up about the limited (number) of at-bats,” Thomas said about trying to recapture last year’s success while keeping himself ready. “Obviously, I probably have a little more than half of what guys playing everyday have. But I think that's still a lot. It's a good opportunity. So just trying to hit some velo off the machine and just stay ready like I'm playing every day and not get out of that mindset.”

That’s going to have to be the day in the life of Lane Thomas for now. With Hernandez hitting and Robles also needing to play, Thomas is going to continue sharing playing time while trying to make the most of his opportunities.

“Right now, between the three of those guys, I'll match up the best way that I can,” Martinez said of the plan to play them moving forward. “But they're all gonna get a chance to play. I noticed that Yadi, after four or five days, you might have to give him a day off. So we'll see how that works out. But with Victor, I gotta give Victor an opportunity to play and play almost every day. I try to match them up, try to get him days off where I feel like Lane's a better matchup. But they're both gonna play.”

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