Thomas hits IL, but 'it could have been a lot worse'

Offensive leader sustains Grade 2 MCL sprain, forcing Nats to realign defense before loss

April 25th, 2024

WASHINGTON -- and the Nationals were relieved when they received the results of the outfielder’s left knee MRI on Wednesday. Following a period of uncertainty, the diagnosis of a Grade 2 MCL sprain was an encouraging outcome.

"Best-case scenario, really,” said manager Dave Martinez.

Echoed Thomas, “I definitely think it could have been a lot worse.”

Thomas was placed on the 10-day injured list with no timetable for a return before the Nationals’ 11-2 loss to the Dodgers on Wednesday night at Nationals Park. He sustained the injury while stealing and sliding into second base Tuesday night. Thomas stayed in the game after receiving medical attention, but when his leg stiffened up in a tied contest, he felt he would not be able to best help his team and exited.

“The initial pain was pretty intense, but it kind of went away quick,” Thomas said. “I feel like I’ve had a pretty high pain tolerance in the past. … Sometimes [with] those things, your adrenaline, you don’t really know what’s going on until a few hours after when you settle down.”

Thomas, who spoke to the media standing up with his left leg wrapped, described the discomfort as a “joint jam” and compared it to the sensation of a hyperextended elbow. The initial stages of his recovery will be to reduce swelling and get rest before he’ll be cleared to rebuild strength. He is not expected to require surgery.

Thomas appeared in 156 games last season and prides himself on being available. His only Major League injury had been a right wrist fracture in 2019. The Nationals’ 2023 offensive leader, Thomas has hit .184 with two homers and is tied for third among all players with 11 stolen bases in his first 22 games this season.

“He’s a big part of our lineup, for sure,” said Martinez. “Even though he wasn’t hitting the ball like he can, he still was getting on base for us, stealing bases for us, playing really good defense. He’s got a really, really quick release with a cannon out there, so [we’re] definitely going to miss that.”

With Thomas on the IL, the Nationals moved around pieces in their defensive versatility puzzle. Veteran Joey Gallo shifted from first base to right field, where he won a Gold Glove Award in 2020 and ‘21.

In a corresponding roster move, the Nats recalled No. 16 prospect Trey Lipscomb from Triple-A Rochester for his second big league stint this season. Lipscomb, the Nationals’ 2023 Minor League Defensive Player of the Year, was tabbed at first base.

“For me, it’s about him gaining experience here,” Martinez said. “He’s getting to do a lot of different things, and he has zero hesitation about anything. The kid just loves playing, he’ll play wherever you tell him to play, so it’s kind of nice to have him. Hopefully when things settle down a little bit, we can get him to actually focus on one position. But the fact that he can play multiple positions and do them well, it definitely helps. Right now, it’s based on a need that we have.”

Lipscomb made 14 starts at third base after debuting on March 30. He had played 119 2/3 innings at first base in the Minor Leagues, as well as 45 frames at the position in the Arizona Fall League last year. Lipscomb started a quick-thinking double play with shortstop CJ Abrams to stifle Mookie Betts and Shohei Ohtani in the second inning.

“At the end of the day, you just want to go out there and catch the ball, throw the ball and play catch,” Lipscomb said. “So nothing really changed for me. But obviously, it’s a lot cooler to do it up here.”

The Nationals opted to tap into their defensive flexibility rather than call up another outfielder. With that, highly anticipated outfield prospect James Wood (Nats’ No. 2, MLB No. 13) stays with the Red Wings, where he is batting .300 with two home runs and a .892 OPS in 20 games.

“He’s doing well, don’t get me wrong, but we want him to get at-bats in Triple-A and continue to do what he’s doing,” said Martinez. “We’re going to see James Wood, no doubt about it. But we just want him to really feel good about himself and get him going.”

As the Nationals make adjustments without Thomas, he will support his teammates. Although unable to compete on the field, he will make himself available to offer in-game insights and knowledge.

“I can’t wait to get him back on the field,” said Martinez. “The kid plays hard every day, and I love him for that. He’s one of our leaders on the field and in the clubhouse. … I know I’ll miss him, but we’re pulling for him to get back as soon as possible.”