- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Gio Gonzalez dressed and stood to face the cameras in front of his locker Friday night. He had gone 11 days between starts because of a postponed game in Philadelphia, then held the San Francisco Giants to one run over seven strong innings without issuing a walk for the first time all season.

The first question posed to Gonzalez was a familiar one, about his outing and his performance, and his answer was similar to what it’s been for the past few months.

“I think that the real guy that was behind all of it was [Jose] Lobaton,” Gonzalez said.

Lobaton is the Washington Nationals’ backup catcher, a role that offers few opportunities and little chance for recognition. But in that role, the 30-year-old Venezuelan has been rock solid so far this season, especially with Gonzalez on the mound. Lobaton has caught seven of Gonzalez’s past eight starts, including the rain-shortened game in Philadelphia. During that stretch, the left-hander has a 3.14 ERA, well below his 4.16 mark for the season.

Gonzalez made it clear that he enjoys pitching when Wilson Ramos is behind the plate, too. He’s just been matched up with Lobaton in recent weeks, a trend that could very well continue Wednesday.

It’s been working, so why change?

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“I think it’s understanding his pitcher,” Gonzalez said. “He’s not only doing his homework against the other hitters, but he’s also doing his homework toward the pitcher and how he feels and how he looks. In other words, it’s a little kick in the [butt] just to get you going, you know what I’m saying? And I give him a lot of credit for that.”

Gonzalez raved about Lobaton’s work ethic first and foremost, saying that the backup catcher is one of the first players to arrive in the clubhouse each day. “He’s a guy that kind of overworks,” Gonzalez explained. Lobaton also isn’t afraid to push the left-hander before and during his starts. On Friday, for example, Gonzalez said Lobaton was getting on him for a pitch he threw to Buster Posey that resulted in a solo home run. Gonzalez had not pitched more than one inning in 11 days.

“That’s not an excuse,” Lobaton told him. “You’ve got to get better.”

Lobaton has nagged Gonzalez about throwing more strikes, and the dividends have been noticeable. He has walked only two batters in his past 14 innings, and allowed only one earned run during that stretch. The numbers are not coincidental, Lobaton said.

“The difference for him is try to throw strikes, try to get the guy to hit and see what happens,” he said. “If you give up six runs because it’s a lot of hits, you can still say it wasn’t a bad game because you were throwing strikes. I’m a catcher, and I want those guys to throw strikes. If they give up five homers, I don’t care. If he’s throwing strikes, I’m happy.”

Lobaton also plays a role in that process by framing pitches, an area in which advanced metrics say he is among the league’s best. According to Baseball Prospectus, he has gained 13.4 additional strikes for Nationals pitchers this season, which ranks 18th in the majors. He began working on pitch-framing during his days in Tampa Bay and cited Jose Molina as an important teacher.

“I don’t want to say I never practice that, but it’s not like something that I go every day like practice, practice,” Lobaton said. “Something that I feel like now I just have it.”

Denard Span watches Lobaton steal strikes for Washington’s pitchers on a nightly basis, but he credits the backup catcher’s personality more than anything.

“He keeps everybody in stitches, and I think that’s like a requirement for a backup catcher,” Span said. “They have to have a good sense of humor, because they have to keep the bench light. When I was in Minnesota, it was Mike Redmond. He was the guy that kind of kept the team just always laughing, kept the team loose. Loby does the same thing.”

Lobaton has not received many at-bats this season, and he knows there won’t be many on the way, barring an injury to Ramos. Midway his second year in Washington, he is content filling his role and helping the pitching staff when called upon, with Gonzalez chief among them.

“You know, everybody wants to be good at something,” Lobaton said. “My role here is a backup catcher. They believe more in my defense than my offense, so I concentrate on being a more defensive guy and a guy that pitchers want me to be there.”

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