- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 23, 2016

Clarity came to Jose Lobaton when he flopped back toward third base.

Lobaton had just completed an awkward recovery to the bag he had overshot. The baseball had rolled away, so Lobaton was able to safely slap third base with relief. He was face down, smiling. Third base coach Bob Henley was on his knees, then delivered a single clap, as if having just witnessed something divine.

Off the bat, hitters often know where their running will conclude. An easy double or a clear single. Perhaps, a home run. However, Lobaton was not sure he had a triple until his breathless run had concluded and an umpire informed him everything was fine.

I figure it out when I was on third,” Lobaton said.

As the Washington Nationals’ backup catcher, the 31-year-old Lobaton doesn’t get to work much when the stands are filled. He catches every fifth day, having been attached to left-hander Gio Gonzalez last season. He plays a full season’s worth of games about every two years.

In between, he’s busy. He works on throws to second base on days when he’s out of the lineup, which are most. He studies for Gonzalez’s starts. In the clubhouse, his locker is just a few feet from Bryce Harper’s. Their stature in the game couldn’t be further apart, though both can go home at night and say they are Major League Baseball players.

After Lobaton was signed by the San Diego Padres as an undrafted free agent in 2002, he debuted in 2009 as one of the stackable footnotes in baseball history, the 17,200th player to enter a big-league game. He didn’t need his catching gear in his first appearance on July 5, 2009, when he went into a game between the Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers in the top of the 13th inning as the second baseman, replacing David Eckstein. No balls were hit to him. His life as a Major League Baseball player had begun. His time as a second baseman had ended.

So, Friday night, when Lobaton hit an 81-mph changeup into the right-center field gap, he was off with high aspirations. He had tripled twice before in his career, doubling up on unlikeliness in 2013 while playing for the Tampa Bay Rays. That was his most successful season to date. He played 100 games that year, hitting .249 and popping seven home runs, along with the two journeys typically reserved for the fleet.

Lobaton had already singled earlier in the Nationals’ 8-4 win against the Minnesota Twins on Friday. Once his hit into the gap landed, Lobaton had his first multi-hit game since last September, one of five for him during the year. As he motored around second, Lobaton was not quite sure what he was doing.

“I stop at second, ‘Why not, just do it?’” Lobaton said. “When I was [halfway] between second and third, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. What am I doing here?’ But, it was great.”

He steamed on toward Henley, the bearded Alabaman noted for his aggressive baserunning directions. Gonzalez watched from the on-deck circle.

“I mean, slow it down, cowboy,” Gonzalez said.

The throw from center fielder Byron Buxton was caught by second baseman Brian Dozier. He pivoted to throw to third base. The ball bounced twice, then landed under Lobaton before surfacing to the side. Lobaton zipped over the third base bag like a luger, legs straight and with too much momentum for his behind to stop him. Needing to recover, he flipped onto his belly.

A quick extension of his right arm ended the mayhem, then set off his teammates. Henley clapped as if his teenager survived the first time driving a car. Jayson Werth raised two fists in the dugout. Daniel Murphy whipped a towel overhead. Once time was called, Lobaton rose from his face-down position. His 85th career RBI was achieved.

“Probably one of the most entertaining triples that you’ll ever see,” manager Dusty Baker said.

The formula for Lobaton is simple: He “loves his job,” which means he understands that being prepared to catch Gonzalez is his priority. Bringing levity is also another duty at work. Harper listened and chuckled as Lobaton explained his magical 270-foot run from Friday night. Sometimes, life is simple and to be enjoyed.

“I think one thing I want to do is do something good for the team,” Lobaton said. “I try to concentrate more on being a good catcher and call a good game for Gio. But, at the same time, I want to do something good for the team, getting some RBIs, some runs … some triples maybe.”

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