Thames working hard on his defense at first base

Eric Thames has been playing first base almost exclusively in every Nationals simulated game this week. Before and after the simulated games, Thames is taking ground balls at first base, focusing on getting better on defense.

Many believe Thames will be employed by Nationals manager Davey Martinez as the team’s designated hitter, but the ultimate Nats lineup for 2020 would be having Thames and Howie Kendrick in the starting nine at the same time, with one at first base and one as the DH.

“He’s big, he’s strong. He seems to fit in really well,” Martinez said of Thames during Saturday’s Zoom call. “From what I am noticing, guys love him. He jumped right in, he’s a good teammate, he wants to do everything he can to help us win ball games. He’s got tremendous power, as we all know. I know he is working diligently with Chip Hale and Tim Bogar over at first base. He wants to be a really good defender. He is showing signs where he can stand out there and play a good first base. He made a good play today. Having him in that lineup, especially against right-handed hitters, is going to be tremendous. He has done serious damage against righties. So he will be a nice addition to the middle of our lineup.

“I am fortunate to have a couple guys that can DH, him being one of them. It’s nice. Instead of maybe him not playing one game you can pop him in and let him DH.”

Thames is known for his power numbers. And they are legit. He has crushed 93 homers and 223 RBIs in his five seasons stateside in Major League Baseball. In Korea, Thames launched 124 homers with 382 RBIs in three seasons for the NC Dinos. If you add those home run numbers together (217) from his foreign league work with his time in the majors, he would rank No. 28 on the active home run list. So that power will be a major plus to the Nats offense this season.

But prior to his time in Korea, Thames did not play first base that much. In Korea, he played over 350 games at that spot, and had two of his three seasons with the Brewers where he logged over 100 games at first. This experience will help him with the Nats. Without Ryan Zimmerman available, Thames could be put at first base a lot this season. So the 33-year-old slugger has concentrated on his first base defense in camp.

Thames-First-Base-Drill-Sidebar.jpg“Playing in games, playing innings, that’s where you get your work in,” Thames said during Saturday’s Zoom call. “Being able to react and dig balls out of the dirt, all that stuff. A lot of reps, a lot of reps in Korea. It was just hours and hours and hours of ground balls. Over here, it’s a little different. But over there, I was learning the position, learning what to do. That definitely helped me a lot.

“Bogey and Chip Hale over here, those guys are really adamant about defense and everything. They have been all over me about getting work in and extra fungoes. In baseball, it could be the ninth inning and a big play, I see Trea (Turner) up the middle, spins and throws it, in-between hop, you better dig it. So I’m busting my butt over here.”

One drill Hale and Bogar have worked on with Thames is standing at first base with a baseball in hand and receiving grounders off the fungo bat. You take in the grounder with your glove, then throw the ball already in your hand and flip it to the pitcher covering at first base. There is no transfer of the ball from glove to throwing hand.

“That’s a drill,” Thames said. “At first base, a lot of coaches will advocate not using two hands on ground balls. You hold one ball so this glove is free. So you dig (for the ball). I hold the ball for the sake of that drill.”

Without Zimmerman, Thames will likely platoon at first base with Kendrick or even Asdrúbal Cabrera. The former Brewer said he will take on any responsibility, he just wants to be on the field.

“Obviously, I can’t control what happens,” Thames said. “All I can control is my mentality and the work I put in. So whatever skip and the coaches, whatever game plan they have, that’s the game plan I have to put myself in the best position possible to succeed for myself and for this team. If I am facing lefties every day or I am a platoon guy or whatever that role, I need to do that to the best of my ability. That’s what I am training for.”

And what about game scenarios in the age of the coronavirus? How close will he get to the opponent or the umpire at first base?

“They can’t tell us, ‘Hey, you can’t hold this runner on because it’s within six feet,’ ” Thames said. “I am assuming it’s going to be the same (as normal baseball), but umpires are going to have masks on. I know coaches can’t be close to you, talk about a situation or this play is on. But for guys at first base, I am sure guys are still going to talk and joke around with each other.”

Thames understands wearing a mask is critical. The bullpen catcher even wears a mask underneath his catcher’s mask while receiving pitches.

“I feel the mask thing is imperative for everyone to get on board so we can kill this thing so we don’t have to do this stuff anymore,” Thames said. “The first day out here, I wore the mask and the humidity out here it was just glued to my face. I couldn’t breathe. How are these guys doing it?

“On the field, I feel like it’s going to be tough to adjusting this (mask) because I am talking right now and it’s going further and further up. So I am constantly trying to touch this. It’s interesting. I am going to have to do like a gaiter mask, the whole thing that goes around your neck and pull it up. We will see. There are so many masks you can use for your own comfort level. Got to make adjustments.”

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