JUPITER, Fla. — Steve Lombardozzi played only shortstop in the Nationals’ 9-0 loss to the Cardinals Thursday but Wednesday afternoon, manager Davey Johnson tossed Lombardozzi into left field as a defensive replacement. It was Lombardozzi’s first ever professional action outside of the infield, and it may be a place he finds himself more often as the Nationals cope with an undetermined timetable for Michael Morse’s injury.
Lombardozzi is in line to make the Nationals out of camp as something of a super-utility player. The Nationals are hesitant to put that name on the role he’ll have, feeling that his talent is that of an every day player, but his abilities at third base, shortstop and second base give him a versatility that makes him valuable in that role. Adding outfield to that mix increases that flexibility as well as the likelihood they’ll be able to get him the 300 or more at-bats they hope for this season.
“If you’re asking me if I think he can do it, yes I think he can do it,” said Nationals third base coach Bo Porter who works with the outfielders and has experience converting players to the outfield positions.
“I got Josh Willingham with three days to go in spring training and he did a pretty good job,” Porter said. “I got Chris Coghlan with one day of outfield experience in Triple-A and next day he’s playing left field in Coors Field. And Lombo actually looked more comfortable than both of those guys on their first day.”
Coghlan, in fact, went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and hit .321 with just five errors in 123 games in left field in 2009.
For his part, Lombardozzi didn’t appear to have too many aversions to trying the new position. Johnson discussed it with him the day before and Lombardozzi, a true second baseman, worked on the position some during batting practice Wednesday morning.
“I had fun with it,” Lombardozzi said. “When I was younger, it was fun to run balls down. It’s something that there’s not a lot of thinking involved. You’ve just got to see it and run it down… There’s definitely a lot to learn to play out there but I think it’s also instincts and just getting good jumps off the bat and the first couple of steps are huge.
“I think it’s another thing I’d work hard at to get more comfortable but I don’t think it’d be something I look at as a negative.”
Infielders who make the switch to the outfield often talk about how much slower the game seems and how it can be difficult to keep your head involved because there’s just so much less action than there is in the infield. Porter didn’t think that would be an issue for Lombardozzi.
“When you talk about a person like Lombo who is in-tune to the game whether he’s in the infield or sitting on the bench, just watching baseball,” Porter said. “And by playing the infield and knowing all the cuts and relays and where the ball is supposed to go, all of those things are going to benefit him.”
So, realistically, how much time would Lombardozzi require in the outfield before the Nationals’ considered using him there in a regular-season game?
“I’m comfortable with him now,” Porter said.
– The Nationals have now scored just two runs in their last three games and while Thursday’s lineup wasn’t exactly representative of the one they’ll be running out nightly during the season, none of the offense has sent up red flags for Johnson to this point.
The Nationals played the first of three straight road games on Thursday but Johnson said when the team returns home he plans to begin playing his regulars for nine innings more often for a few straight games before backing off them toward the end of spring and letting his bench players get the majority of the playing time.
“I don’t want them peaking too early,” Johnson said, pausing before allowing a smile to cross his face and adding, “We’re not.”
“We’re way ahead of what I’ve seen the last couple of years in our approach, almost to a man,” he added. “That’s all I care about, our approach and staying in the hitting area and being aggressive and things like that… I look for signs of are we struggling or are we still going after it? And I like the way we’re going after it. I mean, we’ve got 13 more games. I think most guys are pretty close. I think with one more week, everyone will be pretty much where I want them to be and I can back off of guys.”