Perhaps the Washington Nationals have found their leadoff man in Lane Thomas.
The team’s offense has certainly caught fire since manager Davey Martinez put the streaky 26-year-old outfielder with a career .234 average and .323 on-base percentage atop his batting order in Thursday’s 7-4 loss to Miami.
Thomas responded by going 2-for-4 with a walk and a double, scoring a run and driving in another.
Since then, an offense that had produced eight runs in its previous three games (all losses) scored 24 in it’s next three, when the Nats went 2-1 against three left-handers.
In that span, Thomas has gone 5-for-11 with a pair of walks, scoring six runs. Throw in his May 23 leadoff appearance against the Dodgers when he went 0-for-4, and his slash line batting first this season is a respectable .316/.409/.368.
“It worked out,” Martinez told reporters before Saturday’s 8-6 win over Milwaukee, when Thomas was on base twice with a pair of walks, scoring both times.
‘When I sit around and start thinking about lineups every day, I kind of try to figure out what’s the best fit for all our lineup, 1-9.
“So, and right now it’s working. It’s good. He’s hitting the ball, he’s getting on base, he’s doing the things we need him to do.”
Thomas went 0-for-2 Sunday, but he was still productive, walking before Nelson Cruz’s two-run double in the fourth inning and again before Juan Soto’s two-run homer in the fifth.
Martinez said bringing left-hand hitting shortstop Luis García to the major leagues this month gave him the flexibility to put Thomas in the leadoff spot.
“Big reason for me that Lane can lead off right now, is honestly Luis [García]. Not having all those right-handed hitters in a bunch,” Martinez continued.
“Now Luis is hitting eighth or ninth, so we have a left-hander down there, so it’s easy for me to say, ‘Okay, Lane can hit leadoff now.’”
César Hernández, who maintains a .316 on-base percentage while leading the team with 51 strikeouts on the season, moved down to the second spot, ahead of the Nats’ power trio of Soto, Cruz, and Josh Bell.
“César, he doesn’t mind where he hits, he just likes to hit. He’s done it before. He’s hit everywhere in a lineup and it doesn’t bother him a bit,” said Martinez.
Even though Thomas scored twice after drawing two walks on Sunday, Martinez made it clear that he still wants Thomas to swing the bat.
“The biggest thing for me, is I told Lane, ‘I don’t want you to start looking for walks. I just want you to go hit. Just hit, and if you accept your walk rate, but don’t start not swinging at fastballs because you’re trying to walk and get on base,’” Martinez said.
“‘You’re going to get on base by hitting, and if you walk, you walk.’ And he understands that.”
Thomas’s run in the leadoff spot continues a month of June that started with a three-homer performance in Cincinnati, and now has him with 14 hits and 4 walks in 34 at-bats, scoring 12 runs.
His slash line for the month is one that any of history’s great leadoff men might get picked off third for: .412/.474/.765.
Thomas was regularly atop the lineup after the Nats acquired him at the trade deadline last season for lefty Jon Lester.
Leading off in in 39 games as a Nat last season, he had .267/.361/.491 line with seven homers and 25 RBIs. Thomas had 44 hits and 25 walks, scoring 33 times.
Sometimes, a manager will try to jump start a slumping hitter by putting him in the leadoff spot.
Martinez, himself, famously did it with Kyle Schwarber, as did his predecessor, Dusty Baker, with Bryce Harper. It’s also a favorite tactic of Joe Maddon, recently deposed from the Angels.
But while Thomas had been scuffling at the plate for the first two months of the season, Martinez says his move to the leadoff spot is more of a natural progression than a jump-start.
“He’s in a good place right now,” said Martinez.
“He’s hitting balls to right field and not really trying, he’s staying on breaking balls and driving them over there, he’s really getting on fastballs well now.
“This is the guy that we saw last year, so hopefully we keep him that way for many, many months.
“But as you know, this game always changes, guys go into slumps, so if we can limit the times they do go in a funk, that’s what we try to do.”