NEW YORK — Steve Lombardozzi spent his first week in the major leagues playing in front of groups of friends and family that numbered into the 50s. The Columbia, Md. native took all of his impressive minor league batting statistics, all of the pedigree that comes from being the son of a former major leaguer and all of the expectations and hype surrounding him and stepped to the plate 13 times without success.
When the Nationals left for New York Sunday afternoon, he donned the blue body paint and white spandex pants required of him as a rookie during the annual hazing ritual that took on a Smurf theme for Washington this season. He left, he thought, with the knowledge that his personal contingent would decrease and his parents would no longer be a part of it. He tried, as best he could, to keep the hitless stretch out of his mind.
So when the Nationals’ second baseman came to the plate with two outs in a tie game and a man on first Monday night in the seventh inning — self-admittedly the "biggest situation I’ve been in," — he had no idea that his father, Steve, and the rest of his family were positioned along the third base line at Citi Field. He was 0-for-15 to begin his major league career. But a hit, well that could change things.
Lombardozzi fouled off R.A. Dickey’s first knuckleball and let one pass for a ball. Then he ripped Dickey’s third pitch toward the left side.
"Please get by him, please get by him," he said to himself as the ball bound through the infield and between Jose Reyes and David Wright.
In the stands by the third base bag, eyes welled with tears, his father — himself a World Series-winning infielder with the Minnesota Twins — stood and cheered. The moment, he said, "was almost beyond words."
It wasn’t until three innings later, after the Nationals 3-2 victory over the Mets was secure and Lombardozzi’s the hit to get them there, that the Nationals infielder walked off the field and noticed them in the stands.
"He couldn’t get too much out," the younger Lombardozzi said of the conversation between he and his father at that point. "He was pretty emotional. I think they were just as relieved as me and real excited and proud."
"It wasn’t words," his father said, the tears beginning to well in his eyes again. "Just put it that way."
As Lombardozzi had struggled in his brief transition to the major leagues, the weight was distributed equally among all members of the family. While his father tried to let his son do his thing, there was plenty of hitting chatter going on in the household. For Steve, he was simply waiting to see his son feel comfortable, a look he’s known from the first at-bat since Lombardozzi was a "little guy."
"The first pitch of a game I can look at him and say, 'Oh God, we're in trouble, or 'He's on.'" Lombardozzi said of his son. He finally saw it Monday night.
For that reason alone, it’d be difficult to top the feeling of relief that they all felt, but pride won that battle in a landslide.
As the elder Lombardozzi stood in a Nationals hat and shirt, waiting for his son late Monday night, along with his daughter and wife, he talked with Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein and beamed when discussing what this night meant for him. Asked if it may have topped winning the 1987 World Series with the Twins, Steve was overwhelmed as tears began to flow, getting out a meek "yep," before his seemingly ever-present smile returned and his composure was regained.
Behind him, his son joined the rest of his family with a similar smile. His brief hitless stretch could be joked about now, like reliever Todd Coffey did, writing ‘0-for-15, now 1-for-16’ on what Lombardozzi thought was the ball he’d registered the hit with before revealing the real one.
The 0-for could now become a distant memory, replaced by the one of Lombardozzi helping to salvage 5 ⅔ strong innings from Ross Detwiler that unraveled in a span of four batters. It could become the memory of the first night Lombardozzi helped the Nationals win. That was enough.
"We're all glad that that was out of the way and it was fitting for it to happen that way," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "It was worth the wait. He'll always remember that. He won't remember the 0-for-15 that came before it."
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