On Friday night, in a 11-5 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park, the team glimpsed the upside of starting them both.
“It’s really fun when we’re in there,” Thomas said. “With Vic, you figure he could score anytime you hit the ball in the outfield. I feel like I’m the same way. We try to change the game with our legs.”
Thomas, playing left, hung in the lineup after tearing his way through the Nationals’ recent road swing. Robles, in center, kept on as the Gold Glove candidate who has to find consistency at the plate. But with Thomas clicking — and with Yadiel Hernandez having tailed off from his hot start — it makes sense for Washington (22-38) to pair the speedy outfielders together more often than not. This series opener was a compelling reason, even as it was tilted into a blowout by late-inning power from Josh Bell and Nelson Cruz.
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Everyone got involved in 4⅔ innings against Brewers lefty Aaron Ashby. In order, Thomas notched three singles, César Hernández had two, Soto drove in two with a fielder’s choice and single, Cruz had two RBI singles, Bell tripled and scored in the fifth, Keibert Ruiz legged out an infield hit, Maikel Franco blasted a solo homer, Luis García knocked in Bell, and Robles finished with a single and walk. That totaled 13 hits against Ashby after the Nationals landed off a flight from Miami at about 3:30 am Friday.
“You’re playing numb, basically,” Thomas said of Washington thriving while tired. “That’s a tough one to explain.”
The Nationals wound up with 19 hits, their second-highest total of the season. Bell lined a three-run homer in the sixth, switched to the left side against right-handed reliever Miguel Sánchez. Ruiz followed with a solo homer, his second of the year. Cruz then punched his solo shot off Luke Barker in the eighth, his fourth hit of the contest. That made the team breathe easy after Cruz was scratched from Thursday’s game in Miami with oblique tightness. Cruz said the pain was so bad he had trouble sleeping, then somehow woke up feeling “good as new.”
Starter Erick Fedde enjoyed the early support, yielding three runs on four hits and three walks in 5⅔ innings. The Brewers (33-27), who dropped their seventh straight, scored their final two runs after Franco, the Nationals’ third baseman, committed a pair of errors on the same play in the eighth.
Thomas, 26, slapped one of his two infield singles and scored in the first to hand Fed an immediate lead. Robles, 25, joined the highlight reel when he jumped to catch Peterson’s sacrifice fly against the fence. But he also clouded his strong night with a forgettable base-running mistake, a nagging concern.
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On Thomas’s single in the third, Robles ran to second and lingered there, not putting himself in position to advance on a hit or retreat on a catch. He was, in other words, in no-man’s land, which mattered until both he and Thomas scored courtesy of Soto and Cruz. All in all, though, each helped his club snap a three-game skid. Manager Dave Martinez expects to run them out there again Saturday.
“I definitely want to get Yadi back in there at some point,” Martinez said. “I could be in the DH role, maybe giving [Cruz] a day off, as well, but we’ll see how this plays out. Those guys are doing well.”
How often have the Nationals changed the top third of their lineup? Batting Thomas first, Cesar Hernández second and Soto third was Martinez’s eighth different look of the season. Early on, Martinez mostly stuck with Hernández/Soto/Cruz (22 teams) or Hernández/Soto/Bell (19 teams). Yet once Soto moved from second to third May 22, a rotating cast has hit in front of him.
Thomas earned more top-of-the-order at-bats after finishing the 10-game trip with 11 hits, three doubles, three homers and four walks in 35 plate appearances. He now has two or more hits in six of his past seven games. Hernández had batted first in all but two of his 58 starts this year, and Friday was his first time hitting second for Washington. Twice, he followed a single for Thomas with one of his own.
What stood out with the Nationals’ offense? Sound two-strike hitting. Through four innings, the Nationals were 5 for 5 in at-bats that ended in an 0-2 count: Thomas’s first-inning single, Cruz’s first-inning RBI single, Ruiz’s second-inning infield single, Cruz’s third-inning infield single and Soto’s RBI single in the fourth. Robles added a 2-2 single off Ashby in the fifth, just before the right-hander was hooked by Sánchez. And then Cruz added a 1-2 single off Sánchez in the sixth before scoring on Bell’s homer. Bell’s blast, fittingly, came on a 2-2 change-up in the middle of the zone.
“Why walk back with a strikeout, shaking your head?” Martinez said of how he wants his team to think with two strikes. “Just try to make contact and good things happen when you do that. They did that tonight.”
Anything new on any injured pitchers? Righty Aníbal Sánchez threw what Martinez called a “light” 27-pitch bullpen session Friday afternoon. Left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle has thrown from up to 75 feet. Sánchez, 38, is still recovering from a nerve impingement in his neck and should need a rehab stint in West Palm Beach, Fla., before the Nationals consider a minor league start. Doolittle, 35 and sidelined with an elbow sprain, is easing back after not throwing for close to two months.