In a Washington Nationals season that is just 11 games old, Steve Lombardozzi spent nine of the first 10 getting antsy. Hours before the Nationals’ 6-3 victory over the Houston Astros Monday night, manager Davey Johnson talked about how tough it’s been to get Lombardozzi, who he views as an everyday player, in his lineup with his starting infielders all playing so well.
As a result, the 23-year-old has worked with Johnson and hitting coach Rick Eckstein to be more aggressive at the plate when he does get opportunities. Lombardozzi rarely strikes out, but he’s taken that keen strike zone knowledge up a notch as a utility player. Every single time he saw a strike Monday night, he swung at it.
And when the Nationals needed production most, after their ace had faltered slightly and a 2-0 lead turned into a 2-2 tie, Lombardozzi strode to the plate with his first three-hit game already in the books and the bases loaded.
He fouled off two changeups from Astros starter Kyle Weiland, held off on a curveball in the dirt and then connected with a 92-mph fastball, lofting it softly into shallow left field. A two-run double, a 4-for-5 night and the winning runs were all his. As Lombardozzi stood up on second base, he looked over at third base coach Bo Porter and shortstop Ian Desmond, on third, and smiled.
"I won't forget this night," the Columbia, Md., native said. "It was pretty awesome. And to do it here, at home, was pretty special."
The Nationals bench, which underwent a major makeover this past offseason, has been an early-season strength as they withstand a barrage of injuries, including a key one to cleanup hitter Michael Morse. But on a night where Stephen Strasburg took the mound and second baseman Danny Espinosa got a routine day off, it was Lombardozzi who stole the show.
"That was unbelievable,“ said center fielder Rick Ankiel, who aided the victory with a rocket throw from center field with the bases loaded in the sixth that held speedy center fielder Jordan Schafer at third.
"All the championship teams that I've been on, I think the biggest thing is when you have a starter not play and that guy that steps in for him, when they come in and have a night like that, that's when you talk about championship teams right there."
For five innings, Strasburg was his dominant self. Until he wasn’t. As Strasburg watched a two-run lead disappear in the sixth inning and turn into a tie ballgame just as the Nationals were prepared to take him out of it, he needed some help.
Strasburg came in after a 32-pitch sixth inning and told Johnson he felt he might have been tipping his pitches with runners in scoring position. Whether the Astros were picking up his grip when the ball was still in the glove, reading the signs from second base or he was doing something in his motion to make it clear, the Nationals’ right-hander felt they were too comfortable in the sixth inning and the results showed it.
Strasburg’s night went from dazzling to adequate in the span of one inning. An inning that devolved from its very first batter, twice saw him with a chance to get out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam with one pitch. Instead he surrendered a two-run single to Chris Johnson. The Astros, though, couldn’t hold off the Nationals in the bottom half, a four-run frame courtesy of hits from Ankiel, Lombardozzi and third baseman Ryan Zimmermann, along with walks to Roger Bernadina and Desmond.
"That’s why the biggest thing for a pitcher after you score is to get a zero," Zimmerman said. "Because you have all the momentum."
Lombardozzi came into the game with eight career major league hits and then went out and got half that many in one night. He helped the Nationals score their first run of the game with a well-placed bunt down the third base line that Desmond, running aggressively, scored easily from second on when Weiland’s throw went wide of first base.
The Nationals maintained throughout spring training that they’d only put Lombardozzi on the major league roster if Johnson could find enough at-bats for him throughout the year. Whether he will or not remains to be seen, but the difficult part of leaving Lombardozzi in the minors to play everyday was how much they’d be missing from him at the major league level. It was the promise of night’s like Monday.
"He just understands baseball," said Zimmerman, who worked out with Lombardozzi all winter at Nationals Park. "He doesn’t complain about anything. He shows up. He gets his work done. When it’s his turn to do whatever is asked of him, he’s prepared. The way he worked this offseason and the way he got better, it’s a great story. It’s something people should look at. That’s how you should work to get what you want."
"He's a good player," Johnson said. "Had a heck of a night. As much as I like him, Espi's my second baseman... (Jesus Flores) went 3-for-3 (on Saturday), I think I had (Wilson) Ramos catching the next day. You need that kind of production off your bench and you love to see it."
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