With Victor Robles 1 for 14 over his last six games (just three of them starts), and sitting at an underwhelming .203/.310/.295 on the season, (with 21 doubles, a triple, two homer runs, 33 walks, and a total of 85 Ks in 107 games and 369 plate appearances), Washington Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez has been running Lane Thomas (the recently-turned 26-year-old outfielder acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in return for Jon Lester at the trade deadline) out there as the Nats’ center fielder and leadoff batter more frequently in recent games.
“I want to see Lane play,” Martinez explained before Monday’s series opener with the Phillies in Nationals Park, “and [Thomas has] swung the bat well, so I want to continue to watch him play a little bit. I know what Victor can do, believe me, and like I said before, he’s still a big part of our future, and I want to give Victor a couple days in a row to work on some stuff, but you know, he’ll be back in there soon, just another day that Lane is going to play today and play center field.”
A 1 for 4 game on Monday night, in his third straight start in center, and fourth straight start overall, left Thomas 13 for 42 (.310/.408/.452) with four doubles, a triple, seven walks, 11 Ks, and five runs scored in 13 games since his trade from the Cards.
“Since Lane has been here he’s done well,” Martinez said on Tuesday, when asked about the balance with getting Robles work behind the scenes with hitting coach Kevin Long, giving him an opportunity to put the work into practice, and getting a good look at what Thomas has to offer down the stretch.
“[Thomas has] really worked good at bats, he’s hit,” the manager added, “he’s taken some good walks, so right now he’s earned the right to be out there and playing. I mean, he’s done well, he’s played real good center field, so like I said, I want to continue to give him the opportunity. I heard a lot about Lane from St. Louis guys, and I’m starting to realize that he’s potentially a really, really good baseball player, he understands the game well, so he’s just getting an opportunity right now to play.”
As for Robles, he’s been hard at work behind the scenes with Long, trying to get straight at the plate, with the focus, Martinez explained on Monday, on just making solid contact with the barrel of the bat.
“He’s working with K-Long, yeah, he’s working with K-Long,” Martinez said.
“The balls that he can hit in the strike zone, we want him to put them in play, not foul them off, and get ready to hit a little earlier, and move the ball around. Like I told him, I said, ‘Hey, for me, you’re a gap-to-gap guy, you’re a guy that needs to accept his walks.’ I led him off, I’ll continue to lead him off when he plays, but we want him to get on base and do the little things, when a bunt situation arises — I don’t want to be the dictator and tell him when to bunt, when not to bunt, I want him to see the game and let him play the game like the way he feels like he should play the game.”
Before Tuesday’s game, Martinez talked about the improvements he wanted to see from his outfielder long-term, or in the big picture, over the last month and in 2022 to get him going again and back to the type of player he was coming up and early in this time in the majors.
“I want him to continue to progress, like I said, and be consistently hitting the ball hard,” the fourth-year skipper said. “Working good at bats, taking his walks, doing the little things, bunting when he has to bunt, that’s all part of the process for him. We need him to get on base, you know, we need him to drive in balls. We’re not asking him to hit .300, because the way he plays defense, we need his defense out there, so we’re just asking him to put the ball in play, hit the ball hard, consistently, be a good baserunner every day, every time he’s out there, be aggressive but be a good baserunner, and like I said, just play the game and do the little things right.”
Around an hour to ninety minutes after Martinez made the comments above, the Nationals announced that Robles was optioned to Triple-A Rochester with Andrew Stevenson up to take his spot on the roster. Thomas was penciled in atop the lineup, and started in center field again. The thinking behind the decision on Robles?
“Yeah, you know, I couldn’t talk to you guys about it because I didn’t finish having my conversation with him,” Martinez said, “and I just wanted to come in here, but for us, and I’ve said this before, and I mean this with all my heart, is that we want Victor to be successful up here. He’s still young, he’s  years old, he’s got a bright future here with us.
“I don’t want him to think about anything but going out there and playing. I want him to relax for a while, go down to Rochester, play every day, continue to work on the the things he was working on with K-Long, and just go out and play baseball.
“I know this is not the last we’re going to see of Victor. But I just want him to just kind of take a load off his mind and not put so much pressure on himself. Just go down there and get things right, get his swing right and hopefully it won’t take him long to get back up here. But this one hurt me a lot, because I love Victor to death, and we’re going to be good when he comes back and he’s playing well. We want to get him to start playing really well, so we want to get him to start playing really well, not think about his average or anything like that, just go down there and play baseball like he’s capable of playing.”