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Washington Nationals news & notes: Lane Thomas got Sunday off; Nats’ Josiah Gray plan; Ildemaro Vargas at home

Highlights from Davey Martinez’s media availability over the weekend in Nationals Park...

Thomas Gets A Day:

Lane Thomas is 0 for 11 with 6 Ks against Miami Marlins’ starter Sandy Alcantara in their respective careers, so with the Fish ace set to start Sunday’s series finale in Washington, D.C., Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez decided to give the surging outfielder a day off.

As the Nats highlighted in their pregame notes, Thomas, after going 1 for 3 with a homer Saturday afternoon, had, “hit safely in 12 of his last 13 games, going 20-for-56 (.357) with four doubles, one triple, two homers, eight RBI(s), five walks, one stolen base, and eight runs scored,” over that stretch, and in 48 games going back to July 23rd, the 27-year-old outfielder had a, “.299/.352/.497 [line] with 20 extra-base hits, ranking in the top 20 in the National League in those respective categories.”

“He’s been swinging the bat well,” Martinez explained before Sunday’s game, “... and I want him to continue to swing the bat well.”

Oakland Athletics v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

[ed. note - “Martinez said the line above with a laugh, and was probably right in his thinking considering Alcantara dominated the Nationals, giving up one run in a nine-inning complete game in a 2-1 win for the Marlins.”]

“So, actually, I saw the numbers [against Alcantara] as well, and I thought he’s been playing every day. He’s been playing a lot. I know we’ve had some days off, but I thought give him a day, give him a little breather, and keep him going. So that was kind of my thought process with him, and I told him, I said, ‘Just be ready to play later in the game, but he was okay with it.”

As for what’s been working for Thomas over the last few months?

“He’s been a lot more aggressive,” his manager said. “And we talk a lot about him getting on the fastball. He’s a very good fastball hitter. But look at location. Look at what you know you can hit it hard. And he’s been doing that very well. So you see the power numbers going up, the spike in hits.

“When he’s aggressive and he gets the ball in the zone, he’s hit the ball well.”

Josiah Gray Plan:

Davey Martinez and Co. on the Nationals’ staff have been managing Josiah Gray’s workload for a while now, hoping to get the 24-year-old starter through his first full campaign healthy and feeling good about the way things went this season, without taking him too far past his innings total from the 2021 campaign as they continue to build him up for the rigors of a full big league run.

Gray made his 26th start of the season on Friday night, a five-inning outing which left him at a career-high 136 13 IP overall this season, and Martinez talked after the game about how he would handle his starter going forward in the final weeks of the 2022 schedule.

“I’m going to talk to [Pitching Coach] Jim] Hickey, but I think we’re going to get him back on like 5-6 days [rest] to get him back,” Martinez explained.

“I think he’ll pitch again in Miami, and then we’ll go from there. I want to see — I really want to get him back out there and see how he reacts, especially after the way he threw the ball today.”

Gray gave up all four runs he allowed against the Marlins in D.C. on Friday in a rough top of the second inning which began with a single and ground-rule double, with both runners to reach base scoring on groundouts which followed, then a two-out walk, and two-run home run (his MLB-leading 37th allowed) added to the visitor’s lead, before the Nationals rallied for a 5-4 win, with Gray holding the Fish off the board for his final three innings of work on the mound.

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

“The results stink,” Gray said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman after the outing of the results overall.

“But you think about the process and the mentality of things, and I think that was really a step forward in attacking the zone and giving the team a chance.”

“The second inning, a couple infield hits, and then the home run, he was trying to go in and the ball ran out over the plate,” Martinez said in his own post game press conference.

“He gave up the home run, but then all of a sudden he settled down and threw some zeroes up there. I thought he pitched a lot better this time than he did last time. Once again with him it’s the pitch count, this time of year, like I said, I’m going to be very careful with him. He got up to 90 pitches in five innings, so I could have sent him out but I didn’t want to do that to him, and tack on another 10-15 pitches. But like I said, this year for him it’s been a learning curve, he’s thrown the ball — today I was watching him, his velo was up at 96, but it’s all about location, really not missing spots, getting ahead of hitters, staying ahead of hitters, when he does that he’s very effective.”

The manager and starter had a long conversation in the dugout (with the audio-free images shown on MASN making it look like a fairly one-sided conversation with Martinez doing the talking). What did they discuss?

“It was just about what he did today,” Martinez said, “and about — he really felt like he threw the ball well, and there were a couple of cheap hits. But I said ‘That’s part of the game, and we’re not worried about the outcome right now, we’re worried about the process. And you did really well today. And I’m proud of you. You could have put your head down and went back out there after giving up four runs,’ I said, ‘but you know what, you threw up some zeros, and that’s a plus to me. And come next year, when you’re winning 16-17 games and you’re pitching, throwing 180-190 innings, you’ll learn from this.

“But right now that’s it for you, and we’re going to stick to the plan, and the plan is to keep an eye on you and make sure that your pitch count doesn’t get elevated, and he just said that he appreciates me and everything that I do, and he’s going to get better and that’s all we ask from him.”

Gray said the same to reporters after the appearance on Friday:

“My season starts aren’t what I envisioned them being,” [Gray] said. “But that’s OK. I think the opportunity this organization is giving me is a really good one. And I think Davey and [Pitching Coach Jim Hickey] and [General manager Mike Rizzo] are doing a good job with letting us go out there and fail. Not so much thinking about the results at the end of this year. Thinking about the process, and how can I take my next three or four starts with that mentality, build off that for the offseason. And then come back next year with the results being what I want them to be.”

Gray’s next turn in the rotation (on regular rest) would be in Wednesday’s series finale with the Braves in Atlanta, but as of Sunday morning, Martinez wasn’t ready to name him as the starter for the Nationals.

“I’m going to talk to Hickey today,” he said. “We haven’t made a decision yet. We really thought about just staying on schedule, but I’ll let you know after the game.”

Finnegan Again:

Kyle Finnegan went straight sinkers, throwing 12 of them in a 12-pitch, 3-K, 1-2-3 frame on Saturday afternoon to earn his second save in two games and his 10th overall in 2022.

It’s been an up-and-down season for the Nationals’ 31-year-old right-hander, who’s blown four save opportunities while posting a 3.77 ERA, 3.86 FIP, 21 walks (3.17 BB/9), 61 Ks (9.20 K/9), and a solid .225/.291/.385 line against 60 games and 59 23 IP on the season.

While there was some discussion about whether or not the Nationals would deal the hard-throwing reliever, or righty Carl Edwards, Jr. at the trade deadline, GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies there was interest on the part of other teams, but no offers to blow him away, so he did not want to do anything with the controllable bullpen arms.

“There was a lot of interest in them but not to the point where you give away a good late-inning guy like Finnegan if you don’t like the prospect return,” Rizzo said, “... and you can control him for multiple years. So that’s always the decision process that you make.”

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

While the walks (3.17 BB/9) are obviously not ideal for a closer, and have cost him, as they did when he gave up four hits, two walks, and five runs earlier this month, in blowing a 4-run lead on the road in St. Louis, his manager has stuck with him, found places to get him work and put him back out there in high-leverage situations.

“He walks guys, but he’s our closer, he was throwing the ball well,” Martinez said after the loss to the Cardinals in Busch Stadium.

“We were watching him. Nothing was off. In that situation, I’m going to let him go.”

Martinez’s message for Finnegan after that rough outing against the Cards?

“‘Hey, some days — when you close games, some days go well, some don’t,’” he said he told Finnegan.

“The biggest thing for me is that you’ve got to come in there, up four runs, and you’ve got to pound the strike zone. The walks are going to get you.”

After Finnegan struck out the side on Saturday night, with his sinker at 97-98 MPH with late movement, his manager had nothing but praise for the closer.

“He was electric, he really was,” Martinez said.

“I mean, his ball had that extra giddy-up at the end, he was attacking the hitters, and when he gets ahead of hitters, he can do that kind of stuff, so it was a good outing for him.”

Vargas Finds A Home:

Signed by Washington in late May, after he was released by Chicago (NL), and called up to the Nationals’ big league roster on August 3rd, one day after the trade deadline, Ildemaro Vargas, in 36 games and 133 plate appearances going into Saturday’s game, had a put up a pretty impressive .315/.349/.460 line with nine doubles and three home runs. His manager, Davey Martinez, talked before the second of three with Miami in D.C. about what’s worked for the veteran infielder this time around, with his fifth major league ballclub.

“One, he’s having a lot of fun,” Martinez told reporters. “He really is. And two, he’s actually, he’s looking — he’s aggressive, one, but he’s aggressive in the strike zone, so he’s putting himself in good situations to hit, and that’s been the key for him. We talked a lot with him about, ‘You got to stop chasing, you got to get a good ball, you’re a good fastball hitter, but you’ve got to get the ball in the zone,’ and he’s done a way better job of that since we’ve had him here, than I’ve seen him in the past.

“Because we’ve seen him play, we know he can field the ball, we know he can play multiple positions, but he’s done a way better job, and that’s working with [Hitting Coach] Darnell [Coles] and Six [Assistant Hitting Coach Pat Roessler] in the cage every day, and them talking about situations and staying on the ball, trying to stay in the middle of the field.

“This guy, I looked up his numbers in winter ball, this guy has hit 14-15 homers, so it’s in there, but like I said, all of a sudden when he starts chasing and thinks he can hit everything, that’s when he gets himself in trouble, so far now he’s giving himself a chance because he’s trying to get the ball in the zone.”

[ed. note - “Martinez has mentioned Vargas’s winter ball home run totals before, and we looked then, and we doublechecked again, and he hit 11 in the Venezuelan Winter League this past winter, and he’s hit 10 HRs in Arizona’s system in 2017 & 2021, but Martinez’s claim about 14-15 homers in a season in winter ball is a slight exaggeration, but Vargas has enjoyed himself so far with the Nats, bringing energy to the infield, and producing for the rebooting club.”]

Cincinnati Reds v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

“I mean, he’s doing it right now,” Martinez said on Saturday, when asked if Vargas could be a piece for the club in the future.

“I know it’s been a short period of time,” he added, “... but I like what I see. With that being said, he understands that we’re getting younger, but he’s got the potential to help us in many, many ways moving forward. We are young, and there’s going to be days where I need to give these kids a break, they’re not going to play every day, and if he’s here, he can fill an unbelievable void, playing shortstop, second base, third base, everywhere, even the outfield. He’s played the outfield before.

“I’ve always said it’s nice to have a guy that’s very versatile, and he’s a switch hitter, and has shown me that he could put the ball in play, and do the little things, and he’s done it so far.”

Vargas’s enthusiasm for the game, Martinez said, has been infectious, and he’s helped their young infielders along the way over the last month and a half as well.

The fifth-year skipper was asked if there was a comparison from his own career as a player, then coach, and manager, for the personality on display with Vargas.

“I mean, none that comes to the top of my head,” Martinez said. “If you just watch him he is very animated. I mean, even when he takes a pitch he’s all over — sometimes I tell him, I say, ‘It looks like you’ve got skates on your feet.’ He’s all over the map, and he’s fun to watch. Right now, our infielders, he’s the one that’s bringing all the energy to the young guys, and he’s helped CJ [Abrams] out a lot on that left side, and he’s helped Luis [García] out a lot over there, and he keeps him engaged every pitch.

“It’s been a lot of fun to watch those three play together,” Martinez added, “... and also him yelling at Joey [Meneses] from the other side of the field, it’s been fun.”