Thomas looking to lengthen Nats lineup in return from IL

ATLANTA – Lane Thomas stepped up to the plate in a major league game for the first time since April 23 on Monday afternoon. After missing 29 games with a left MCL sprain, he was finally back in the No. 2 spot in the Nationals lineup for their series opener against the Braves.

Thomas took the third pitch he saw – an inside changeup from right-hander Charlie Morton – and ripped it into the left field corner. He sprinted out of the box, rounded first base and slid into second feet first for a double, his first of the year and just his third extra-base hit.

There was no hesitation. The knee is fine.

“No, if that was the case, I don’t know if I’d be here,” Thomas said yesterday of any mental handicaps coming back from an injury like that. “So I definitely got through all of those barriers with some of our medical staff. I feel good.”

Thomas came around to score easily on Eddie Rosario’s RBI double two batters later. He then doubled leading off the top of the ninth, again taking an off-speed pitch on the inside part of the plate and driving it into the left field corner. In his first game off the injured list, he finished 2-for-5 with two doubles and a run scored.

“Love it,” manager Davey Martinez said after the 8-4 win. “Like I said, he's a big part of our offense and we missed him up there in the two hole. He got things going for us early today.”

Despite his slow start to the season (.184 average and .503 OPS in his first 22 games), Thomas lengthens the Nationals lineup, which is left-handed heavy. When Martinez moved CJ Abrams to the leadoff spot and bumped Thomas to the two hole last year, the offense really took off with the two of them having strong seasons at the plate.

Now that Thomas is back, the Nats are hoping he not only provides protection for Abrams (who hit his second homer in as many days yesterday) but that he’s also a catalyst at the top of the lineup.

“We get him back. He's going to hit second. Protect CJ a little bit,” Martinez said. “But we did miss him. He's a guy that could drive a ball for us and plays great defense for us. So it's good to have him back. … He's definitely going to help. Like I said, another big right-handed bat in our lineup.”

“It's awesome. Driving in runs,” Abrams said. “Two doubles today was it? He's swinging it. He's back swinging it.”

If Thomas can get back to the level of production he showed he’s capable of last year, he’ll provide a big power boost to a Nats offense that has lacked in that department to start the year. Granted, they are not built for power. But any little bit helps.

There isn’t an exact plan in place yet for managing Thomas’ workload. He only played four rehab games with Double-A Harrisburg this week before being activated off the IL yesterday. And he only played a full nine innings while playing the field once. But feeling general soreness after a game is a good thing.

“I think the process was to try and get through that stuff before I started playing,” Thomas said. “Kind of build up so that I wouldn’t get that. Obviously, I can’t tell you how I’m going to feel tomorrow. But as of now, I feel great.”

Thomas returns as the Nats’ everyday right fielder and No. 2 hitter. But depending on how he’s feeling over the next couple of days, Martinez may look for chances to get him off his feet as he eases back into the wear and tear of playing in the majors every day.

“I talked to him a little bit,” the skipper said. “We're gonna take it one day at a time. I'll ask him every day how he's feeling. But there could be a day where I just give him a day off off his feet. There could be a day where I DH him. So we'll get to that point when we get there.”

The good news is Thomas isn’t thinking about the injury anymore. He’s focusing solely on playing baseball. His first game back was a big success in that department.

“I just want to go out and do my part, whether that's hitting a home run or moving a guy to third base on a ground ball,” he said. “I think you start trying to do too much and it becomes not so great. So I just want to go do the situational stuff right. They've been doing well. I feel like they obviously had a tough road trip, I guess the one I went on before I was active. But other than that, I feel like they've been swinging it really well and pitching really well. So hopefully I can just do my part.”

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