Lane Thomas is getting used to the Nationals

Recently, Lane Thomas and Chase Henry Thomas sat on the same side of a booth on Capitol Hill for an hour, swapping French toast and stories from a decade of baseball. They met in middle school and married last winter. Their conversational pattern is not one of finishing each other’s sentences, but rather one of linking memories with small interjections, with the listener leading the speaker from one scene to the next.

One moment they’re back at the pool in Knoxville, Tennessee, Lane watching the 2014 MLB Draft on Chase’s laptop while Chase sits in the lifeguard stand. Lane, a scrawny outfielder, saw his name and bio at the bottom of the screen: Lane Thomas, right fielder, fifth-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays out of Bearden High, 144th overall.

He had never played right field before. But no matter what position he held, Thomas knew the Blue Jays would pay him enough to skip college. He and Chase were supposed to spend the summer at Fort Loudoun Lake, hanging out with their friends, and then pack up and head to the nearby University of Tennessee in the fall. When he went to her, he was already crying, even before he said the four words that would define the rest of her life.

“I just got drafted.”

“Whoa,” Chase recalled.

“And I really grew up in that moment,” Thomas said over breakfast in September, Chase to his right, 32 weeks pregnant with a boy. “I felt like I was growing up much sooner than expected. The game will age you quickly.”

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The stories don’t stop there. One time, Lane drove to Marietta, Georgia, to practice for the Blue Jays, then raced back early the next morning to make it to prom in time. There was this hotel in West Virginia — “Oh no,” Chase says — that had no sheets, no comforter and insects on the walls, which prompted Lane, then a minor leaguer with Toronto, to buy a sleeping bag and pull himself into it Mattress. And there was the start of the 2021 season when Lane, then a fringe major league player for the St. Louis Cardinals, finished a game in Memphis, was called in around midnight, then drove until about 6 a.m. and stopped for a few hours to watch sleep in a hotel, then start in center field for an afternoon game at Busch Stadium.

A common theme: the chaos of trying to make it to the majors and stay there. But after Lane Thomas hit a career-high 28 home runs this season and leads the Washington Nationals with an adjusted OPS that’s 14 points above the league average, he and Chase can at least take a deep breath or two. He feels at home with the Nationals, his third organization in nine years, especially after they decided to keep him at the trade deadline. However, he will never be able to shake the feeling of having to prove himself.

“You’re always scared,” Chase said. “But you know …”

“You might not look over your shoulder after a bad game,” Lane said, speaking from experience of looking over his shoulder after bad games. “But you know, I think you know you’re replaceable until you sign that long-term contract.”

“It was an opportunity”

About halfway through that hour in the diner, they both leaned forward and pressed their elbows on the table. Her eyes widened. They talked about how much Lane Thomas’ father Mike loves his son.

While Thomas was growing up, Mike was a professional drag racer on the NHRA circuit. He also bred Tennessee Walking Horses and taught Thomas to ride them in competitions. But no matter where the venue was, they always made sure to include baseball. Mike remembered his racing mates marveling at Thomas’s arm when Lane was 5, maybe 6 years old. On Saturday they hit Mike’s equestrian center, Mike sitting on an overturned bucket and Lane hitting balls the entire 250-foot length of the building.

After Lane’s junior year at Bearden, his coach John Rice convinced him to try out for Team USA. Thomas didn’t think he was good enough to make the team. Rice and Thomas’ father disagreed. And as Thomas spent the entire summer with the program, playing in North Carolina, California and Taiwan, major league scouts rushed to Knoxville to meet with father and son.

“We’ve been through everything,” Mike said. “When he was 16 years old, they invited 144 players to try out for Team USA. He managed to reduce it to 44, then to about 20, and finally ended up victorious in Taiwan. I told him, ‘You’ve been the best player on the field all your life.’ What’s the difference now?’ ”

“When Lane started seeing himself more the way his father saw him, that was great,” Rice remembers. “Lane thought he was only good for Knoxville, Tennessee. Everyone else wanted to scream at him: “You’re good for everything!”

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He played a lot of second base with the Blue Jays before they traded him to the Cardinals in 2017 for international bonus slot money. He debuted with the Cardinals in 2019, pitched well, then broke his wrist a month before the playoffs. Over the next two seasons for St. Louis, his average was around .100, making him a pinch-hitter and a late-game defensive replacement.

He found it difficult to feel part of the team. He sat quietly at his locker, not wanting to fool around when his numbers were so bad. Then in July 2021, just minutes before the trade deadline, the Cardinals traded him to the Nationals for pitcher Jon Lester. He could finally breathe again.

“It was an opportunity,” Chase said, turning to Lane. “I just saw a renewed energy in you, like the life that was missing was suddenly back.”

“It would mean a lot to see this through.”

Here’s a weird chicken-and-egg thing about baseball: To be successful, it helps to be relaxed and be yourself. But it’s often hard to be yourself without achieving success. An example of this is Thomas’ two and a half year collaboration with Washington. Appearing mechanical, calm and serious when he arrived two Augusts ago, he posted an OPS of .853 over the last six weeks, evolving from a part-time player to an everyday role at center. But over the last six months, Thomas has become one of the more sociable players in the clubhouse, mingling with a few reserves one day and taking the spot with the entire infield the next.

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Late in the season, when the Nationals were in Baltimore, he walked by manager Dave Martinez’s office and told him he looked a little older. (Martinez had turned 59 the day before.) Martinez playfully yelled that Thomas wasn’t in the lineup, then mumbled that that wasn’t a good idea. In early September, Thomas became the first player to hit at least 20 home runs and steal 20 bases for the Nationals since Bryce Harper did so in 2016. Around the trade deadline, general manager Mike Rizzo repeatedly called him an All-Star player. He said he would rather continue working with Thomas than trade him for one or two prospects.

“It would mean a lot to me to stick it out and be here when this team starts winning again,” said Thomas, who has only played for last-place clubs in Washington. “I’ve sometimes imagined what that would be like, and it’s cool to see myself in the middle of it. We’re getting there.”

He will be under team control for two more years beyond this season and will be eligible again this offseason. If he strikes again next spring and early summer, he’ll likely be the subject of more trade rumors – a win for the Nationals after they acquired him for a pitcher on his last legs who made 12 more starts before retiring. A strong arm has increased his defensive value in right field. If he can improve against right-handed pitchers, walk more and reduce his strikeouts, all the better. Going forward, Thomas’ competition will come from a small handful of top outfield prospects in the Nationals’ system: James Wood, Dylan Crews and Robert Hassell III for starters, then Andrew Pinckney, Daylen Lile and Elijah Green.

But as always, that just means Thomas’ biggest competitor is himself. It’s been a long time since he felt like he didn’t belong. However, it could take the rest of his career to find solace.

“You never really made it,” he said. “But I will try it.” Lane Thomas is getting used to the Nationals

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