Before Jonathan Lucroy found himself behind the plate Tuesday night, catching for Nationals ace Max Scherzer on opening day, the 34-year-old backstop didn’t know what his future held.
Lucroy had been cut from the Chicago White Sox on March 29 despite hitting .333 in 14 spring training games. He returned home to his family, waiting for the next opportunity to arise — if one would arrive for a catcher who hadn’t consistently played since 2019.
That’s when the Nationals called. Washington was in a pickle, with both Alex Avila and Yan Gomes out through coronavirus protocols. So the team signed Lucroy on Saturday night, waited for him to clear intake testing Monday night, then threw him on the field Tuesday for his Nationals debut with little-to-no preparation time.
“You know the movie ‘The Replacement’ with Keanu Reeves as the quarterback? Shane Falco,” Lucroy said. “That’s what I kind of feel like out there. It’s funny.”
Like the fictional Falco, Lucroy was an unlikely hero Tuesday night. He hit a two-run double and managed an unfamiliar pitching staff well in Washington’s walk-off win. And on Wednesday, Lucroy appeared again, another day in a job he doesn’t know how long he’ll have.
Eventually, Gomes and Avila will be eligible to return. And when Gomes and Avila return, Lucroy’s short stint with the Nationals will likely end. But for the catcher, this unexpected ride with Washington will have been worth it toward the end of a 12-year, eight-team career.
“I’ve been fortunate, like I said, to be on a lot of great teams and be around,” Lucroy said. “Almost 10 years [of service time], I’m almost there, so whatever happens is going to happen, and I’m OK with it.”
The challenge facing Lucroy on Tuesday was that he had never caught for Scherzer before — or any of the relievers following him out of the bullpen. Scherzer and Lucroy talked on the phone Monday, trying to get on the same page before they’d be in front of an opening day crowd.
But Lucroy describes the pitcher-catcher combination as something similar to a marriage. It only works if there’s communication, if both sides talk to figure out what’s working and what’s not. So while the phone conversation helped, the in-game adjustments went a long way.
Scherzer surrendered four solo homers within the first three innings Tuesday. And while the right-hander clarified he wasn’t one to make excuses, he admitted there was a learning curve to find where to aim his pitches based on how Lucroy set up. But Scherzer retired 12 of the final 13 batters he faced, a much-needed rebound.
“He’s a veteran, he’s a pro, he’s been in the league a long time, he understands the game at a high level,” Scherzer said. “So it’s just trying to get on the same page with him and understanding what I do and what I do well. That’s just kind of how it goes.”
Despite Lucroy’s experience, he said he isn’t a “prideful” catcher who is irked when pitchers shake off his calls. Especially with a new team, he wants to make sure the hurler is comfortable, and much of that involves letting the pitcher do what he feels is best.
“Look man, shake me off,” Lucroy told Scherzer. “I don’t care. Shake me off, do your thing. I’m just a guy behind the plate, don’t worry about me. Just throw your game, call your game, do what you want. I’m with you all the way to support you, I’ll back you up, I’ll block balls, I’ll do whatever I got to do to help you win, and that’s all I care about right now.”
Even after Scherzer’s two first-inning longballs, Lucroy entered the dugout pumping his teammates up, Martinez said.
And on Wednesday, during left-hander Sam Clay’s major league debut, Lucroy settled the rookie down with a well-timed mound visit. Clay had fallen behind Braves slugger Freddie Freeman 3-0, so Lucroy trotted out to tell Clay to mix up his looks and alter his timing to the plate.
“I know it’s only been a day, but he’s a joy so far, talking to him and listening to him and knowing all that he knows about the game,” Martinez said. “He’s just a tremendous guy to have around.”
Lucroy spent seven seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers before a midseason trade to the Texas Rangers in 2016. He earned All-Star nods in 2014 and 2016, but Lucroy’s career has devolved into one more akin of a journeyman, playing for seven teams since the beginning of the 2017 campaign.
But he’s hanging around, and his latest opportunity with the Nationals isn’t one he takes lately — no matter how long it lasts.
“I mean, look, I get to play baseball,” Lucroy said. “It’s going to be great regardless.”