Thomas' emergence puts Nats in 'tough' spot

Robles squeezed out of new-look outfield, optioned to Triple-A

September 1st, 2021

WASHINGTON -- ’ name was written on the Nationals’ lineup card at center field for the eighth time in 10 games on Tuesday against the Phillies. It’s a defensive assignment that’s expected to be seen frequently after Washington optioned Victor Robles to Triple-A Rochester earlier in the day.

“I've said this before, and I mean this with all my heart: We want Victor to be successful up here,” manager Dave Martinez said after the Nats’ 12-6 loss at Nationals Park. “He's still young, he's [24] years old, he's got a bright future here with us. … This one hurt me a lot because I love Victor to death. We're going to be good when he comes back and he's playing well.”

Robles has been the Nationals' starting center fielder since 2019, the same season he was named a Gold Glove Award finalist for his defensive prowess at the position. This year was supposed to be a bounce-back from 2020, when he gained 15 pounds of muscle and his productivity declined. Instead, it has been an up-and-down fifth Major League season.

“We’re not asking him to hit .300 because the way he plays defense, we need his defense out there,” Martinez said pregame. “We just ask him to put the ball in play, hit the ball hard consistently, be a good baserunner every day … just play the game, do the little things right.”

Robles has made 93 starts (104 total games played) in center field this year. He is slashing .203/.310/.295 (.605 OPS) with 64 hits, 21 doubles, two homers, 19 RBIs and 37 runs scored. While Robles leads the Nationals with eight stolen bases (six caught stealing), he also tops the club in strikeouts (85).

There is no time frame for Robles’ return. The objective is improvement and getting back on track without rushing through the process. Martinez hopes Robles will take what he had been working on with hitting coach Kevin Long and apply it to the Red Wings during their playoff push.

“I want him to kind of take a load off his mind and not put so much pressure on himself,” Martinez said.

The manager has long expressed his confidence in Robles, but center field became crowded when Thomas emerged there over the past two weeks. Thomas, acquired at the Trade Deadline from the Cardinals in exchange for Jon Lester, got the nod in center on Aug. 21 while Robles was under the weather, and he has been thriving since then. In his 14 games with Washington, he is hitting .304 with six runs, five doubles, six RBIs, eight walks and one stolen base.

“Since Lane’s been here, he’s done well,” Martinez said pregame. “He’s really worked good at-bats, he’s hit, he’s taken some good walks. Right now, he’s earned the right to be out there and play. ... I want to continue to give him the opportunity. I heard a lot about Lane from some St. Louis guys, and I’m starting to realize that he’s potentially a really, really good baseball player.”

It has been a whirlwind of progress for the 26-year-old Thomas, who went from playing for Triple-A Memphis in late July to being traded to the Nationals to earning starting playing time. September is looking like it will provide even more chances to develop.

“That is kind of a crazy turn of events,” Thomas said, after going 1-for-4 with an RBI double against the Phillies. “But at the end of the day, I always knew I could play. It’s just getting the opportunity and running with it. Obviously, I’m going to get to play a little bit more. I just need to keep grinding it out every day and take good at-bats and just try to win games.”

The Nationals had a new-look outfield with Josh Bell starting in left field for the first time in his career. That move allowed both him and Ryan Zimmerman, who started at first base, to be in the lineup together.

As the Nationals encourage Thomas’ continued improvement in center field, they will do the same with keeping a close eye on Robles in Rochester. Deciding to option him to Triple-A wasn’t an easy decision, but one they feel will be helpful for the future.

“We’ve been together for three years now -- almost four years, really,” Martinez said. “It was tough. It was tough for me. It was tough for him. I’ve got a lot of respect for him, as he does for me. We talked and I told him, I said, ‘You’re going to play here again. You’re going to play for me again. You’re going to play for the Nationals again.’”