WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Davey Martinez had a simple message for Eric Thames today as the veteran first baseman prepared to play for the first time since straining a calf muscle 11 days ago.
“Don’t go gangbusters. Ease your way back into it,” the Nationals manager said. “Don’t try to go first to third right now.”
So what happened when Thames stepped up to bat in the bottom of the first inning against Marlins right-hander José Ureña? Of course he sent a sinking liner into right-center field, the ball squirting away from a diving Matt Kemp. And then, of course, he decided to try to stretch his single into a double.
“They can say a lot of stuff, but in the moment it all goes out the window,” Thames said with a laugh later on. “You just get locked in.”
Yes, but how did his manager feel about it?
“Really? Did you have to do that to me?” Martinez said he told Thames. “Let me explain something to you. You know last year I went to the hospital because of my heart?”
Thames insisted he felt fine after that 180-foot scamper around the bases. (He was thrown out, by the way.) And in a weird way, that might’ve actually been the best thing he could’ve done today to prove he’s 100 percent healthy and ready to resume preparations for his first season in D.C.
“Yeah, it’s a great sign,” he said.
The Nationals need Thames to be at his best come opening day. They have high expectations for the big slugger after signing him for a guaranteed $4 million over the winter to serve as this year’s left-handed first baseman (a role previously held by Matt Adams, Adam Lind and Clint Robinson).
If things go as the club expects, Thames may end up playing more than any of those guys did, starting against most opposing right-handers and hoping to put up the kind of monster power numbers (72 homers in 1,288 plate appearances) he did the last three seasons with the Brewers.
The 33-year-old gave the Nationals a taste of what he can do at the plate today. Leading off so he could get three at-bats as quickly as possible before departing, he followed his first-inning single with another line drive single to right in the third before striking out in the fifth.
Most important, there were no problems with his calf.
“It feels good,” Thames said. “The last four, five days it’s felt great. And then today we kind of just built on it. All of us knew this was fine and it wasn’t a bad pull or something. That was a relief to everybody.”
Up the road in Port St. Lucie, Victor Robles also made his return from a minor injury, also leading off and also serving as DH for the Nationals’ other split-squad game, against the Mets. The young center fielder, who tweaked a muscle on his right side 10 days ago making a throw to third base, got three plate appearances, going 1-for-2 with a walk and a strikeout.
Robles scored a run and was on the back end of a successful double-steal with Trea Turner, all signs of good health.
Like Thames, Robles will return to camp Sunday morning and report how his body recovered from his first game action in a while. And assuming all is well, both players will spend these final two weeks of the spring getting themselves into regular-season shape.
Thames believes there’s more than enough time to do that.
“Oh, yeah, I’m happy (the injury) happened when it happened,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you show up wearing the cleats. Your body’s used to wearing workout shoes all offseason, or bare feet. Your hips are in a different spot, and they fold. Little imbalances happen, and then bam, a little hammy or a calf or oblique. But this happened early, and I’m happy it’s behind now.”