Nats' Lane Thomas earns shot at leadoff spot amid hot streak originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
After getting off to a slow start to the 2022 campaign, Lane Thomas has been one of the Nationals’ hottest hitters over the last five weeks.
Including his 3-5 performance in an 11-5 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, Thomas is hitting .274 with six home runs and an .858 OPS over his last 31 games dating back to May 1. He etched his name into the Nationals’ record books with a three-homer game against the Cincinnati Reds on June 3 and worked his way up to the top of their lineup.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez hit him leadoff Friday. While it was Thomas’s fourth game this season hitting first, usual leadoff man César Hernández was bumped down to the No. 2 spot for the first time. It was a move Martinez anticipates trying again after they combined to reach base five times against Milwaukee.
“When Lane is swinging the bat well like he is now, I kind of like that whole setup,” Martinez said in his postgame press conference, as aired on MASN. “It plays out good for us. If Lane can get on base, César — he’s been doing a great job leading off but I know he can hit second too and those guys can get on base for the three, four, five, six hitters we got. They had a really good day today.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Thomas was ceding playing time to Yadiel Hernández in left field. However, Hernández has cooled off considerably with a .177 batting average and .510 OPS over his last 25 games. Martinez has given a majority of the starts in left and center field this season to whoever has the hot hand between Thomas, Hernández and Robles. Over the last few series, that has meant fewer at-bats for Hernández.
Even so, Thomas also carries higher upside with the glove than Hernández, entering play Friday with four Defensive Runs Saved between his time in left and center field — most of any player on the Nationals thus far this season.
The 26-year-old arrived in D.C. at the trade deadline last season with low expectations. Acquired from the Cardinals in exchange for the struggling Jon Lester, his play in St. Louis suggested his ceiling might have capped out as a fourth outfielder. That may still be the case for Thomas, but his production since the trade has suggested otherwise.
He posted an .853 OPS in 45 games down the stretch in 2021, which caught the Nationals’ attention enough for them to justify optioning Victor Robles to Triple-A and making Thomas their everyday center fielder for the final six weeks of the season. The club then didn’t sign a single outfielder in free agency over the winter, giving Thomas a legitimate chance to earn playing time again.
Two months into the season, Thomas is starting to take advantage. It’s unclear if Thomas will still hit leadoff against right-handed pitchers — both of the opposing starters the Nationals have faced the last two games have been southpaws — but his recent surge has shown Martinez enough to consider keeping him there moving forward.