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Lane Thomas brings the boom off the bench, but the Nationals lose in extras

Braves 4, Nationals 3 (12)

Lane Thomas's three-run, pinch-hit homer provided all of Washington's offense Sunday. (Brett Davis/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — As the Washington Nationals seek building blocks along their way back to contention, Lane Thomas’s role for the future remains unclear.

In the Nationals’ 4-3, 12-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves on Sunday afternoon, the 26-year-old outfielder provided a glimpse of his potential. His pinch-hit, three-run homer in the sixth inning gave the Nationals the lead.

“That was a great swing,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “He sat back there and really got his hands through and got the ball up in the air. When he does that, he’s really good. So that was definitely encouraging.”

That 3-2 lead didn’t hold up. Austin Riley hit a solo home run in the eighth inning to tie the score before adding a walk-off single against Jordan Weems in the 12th to complete Atlanta’s three-game sweep. The Nationals (30-58) have lost four in a row and 10 of 11. They scored three runs or fewer in all seven games of this trip to Philadelphia and Atlanta (52-35), losing six of them.

Seeking to jump-start the offense, Martinez shuffled his lineup. He put Luis García in the leadoff spot, moved Josh Bell up to No. 2 and shifted all-star Juan Soto into the third spot.

The changes didn’t help much; those three went 1 for 11 but did manage four walks. Washington had five hits — just three after the first inning and only one in extra innings. The Nationals got a man to third for the go-ahead in each extra inning but failed to drive him in — Bell struck out swinging to end the 10th, Keibert Ruiz was caught looking to close the 11th, and Victor Robles flied out to left in the 12th.

“We’re struggling just to get runs across the board,” Martinez said. “We got three runs from a pinch-hit homer from Lane, which was awesome, [but] we’re hitting into a lot of double plays. We got to start getting the ball up in the air in situations, got to start driving in runs with guys on third base with less than two outs.”

Juan Soto, despite an unsteady start, is an all-star again

So as those struggles continued, Thomas brought home all of the Nationals’ runs with his ninth homer. He replaced Yadiel Hernandez, who started in left field against Braves right-hander Ian Anderson. Anderson walked a pair of batters with one out in the sixth, and the Braves turned to lefty Dylan Lee.

Lee got Ruiz to fly out, setting up Thomas’s moment. The matchup was ideal for him: Thomas hits lefties and fastballs well, and Lee primarily throws fastballs against righties. Thomas said he was prepared for a breaking ball based on their previous matchups, so he watched a first-pitch curveball in the dirt, then sent another into the visitors’ bullpen to give Washington the lead.

“Our staff prepares us with the info we have on the guys coming out of the ’pen,” Thomas said of his approach to the at-bat. “Just understanding the situation and anticipating what they’re thinking, too.”

The Nationals got Thomas during their sell-off at last year’s trade deadline when they sent lefty Jon Lester to the St. Louis Cardinals. He hit .270 and had an .853 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 45 games with Washington to finish the season.

Thomas hasn’t been as productive this season, but he boosted his batting average to .220 (and his OPS to .660) with Sunday’s homer. Those struggles, coupled with his defensive limitations, have put Thomas’s ability to be an everyday outfielder on a contender in doubt. But given his ability to hit hard-throwing relievers, he could be effective as a fourth outfielder. That’s the scenario that played out Sunday.

Last time out: Nats fall again to Braves, but Juan Soto’s bat is starting to come alive

What roster moves did the Nationals make? Reliever Hunter Harvey (right pronator strain) was reinstated from the 60-day injured list. Joan Adon was sent back to Class AAA Rochester after scuffling during a fill-in start Thursday at Philadelphia. To make room on the 40-man roster, Jackson Tetreault was placed on the 60-day IL after suffering a stress fracture in his right scapula.

Harvey made three rehab appearances, including two for Rochester. He said the process took longer than anticipated but he wanted to take extra time to make sure he felt right.

The Nationals added the 27-year-old, a first-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2013, off waivers from the San Francisco Giants in March.

How is the rotation lining up? Against the Seattle Mariners at Nationals Park, Josiah Gray is slated to start Tuesday, followed by Erick Fedde on Wednesday. There’s usually a gap in the rotation between Gray and Fedde, but Fedde will be on normal rest after Monday’s day off.

As for the next series, a four-game set against the visiting Braves that will take the Nationals into the all-star break, Martinez said he has yet to decide, but Patrick Corbin and Paolo Espino (who allowed two runs in four innings Sunday) will be in the mix. With Adon back in the minors, Washington still needs another starter. Aníbal Sánchez could be an option; the 38-year-old, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2020, has made three rehab starts for Rochester after a neck injury sidelined him since spring training.