With Ian Desmond out of the lineup after the All-Star Break with an oblique tear which grew worse after the shortstop sat out of the mid-summer classic to rest, 23-year-old Washington Nationals' infielder Steve Lombardozzi took over in the Nats' middle infield with Danny Espinosa moving over to short so Lombardozzi could play second base. The '08 19th Round pick came up as a second baseman, but until he was needed there, had filled in wherever necessary, playing left field, third base and even short on one occasion early in the 2012 campaign.
The Minor League Gold Glove winner got a sustained stretch of starts from mid-July to mid-August with Desmond out, and Lombardozzi impressed, putting up a .295/.336/.402 line between 7/21 and 8/15, but Desmond returned after that and it was back to a utility role for Lombardozzi.
After going 4 for 5 with two doubles in the Nationals' win over the San Francisco Giants on August 15th, Lombardozzi had a .280/.329/.364 line on the year. He wouldn't get another at bat until August 20th, when he was called upon to pinch hit in the bottom of the 11th inning of a 4-4 game. Lombardozzi lined the first pitch he saw from Atlanta Braves' lefty Luis Avilan to left field for a one-out single. The Nats' infielder was stranded two outs later, but Davey Johnson told reporters the next day he had noticed the way Lombardozzi handled himself in what is a tough role for a young player used to getting consistent at bats.
"It's really tough for a young player to know how to take an approach to pinch hitting," the Nats' 69-year-old skipper explained. "I've talked to a lot of the young guys about [how] when you pinch hit you're a little more aggressive. You look for a ball in the zone and you know that the pitcher is in trouble. He doesn't know you. And a lot of times it's a tough situation, so you look for a ball in the zone and you try to hit it hard enough to hit a double, but you're aggressive and if you miss it, at least it well help your timing."
"Young players are used to playing every day," Johnson continued, "And so they usually like to go up and look at a pitch here and there. And so Lombo was real good. Sometimes they take the approach in a situation where there's a runner on second, nobody out, 'I'm going to hit this ball hard the other way.' Well, if it's the game-winning run? Just drive him in. And so they might take a pitch inside and pop it up to right... and that's still a learning experience. You don't like to put young guys in that situation. Lombo has been impressive because he has been adjusting to a very difficult role this year. I mean, left fielder, second base, now he's back in kind of a utility role. But he's more experienced... well, his dad I'm sure his dad is filling him with knowledge the last ten years."
Lombardozzi's dad, Steve Lombardozzi, Sr. was a major league infielder with the Twins and Astros from 1985-1990, who had a combined .233/.307/.347 line over 446 games and 1,437 PAs in his career. After his son returned to a utility role with the Nationals late in 2012, Lombardozzi, Jr. had a .231/.241/.288 line from mid-August through September/October to finish his first full pro season with a .273/.317/.354 line, 16 doubles, three triples and three home runs in 126 games and 416 PAs over which he was worth +0.8 fWAR.
In an early September talk with reporters, Davey Johnson said one of the regrets he had this season as the Nats fought for a division title was that he wasn't able to find enough time for Lombardozzi with his starting infielders healthy and determined to play every day. "Lombo was basically a regular for 75% of the season," Johnson said, but, "Now that everybody's doing the things that they're capable of doing, it's going to be harder for me to get him the at bats."
Lombardozzi had a .308/.379/.385 line as a pinch hitter, with eight hits in 30 PAs. As a starter Lombo had a .270/.309/.355 line in 83 games and 367 PAs. As a sub, the rookie infielder had a .302/.375/.349 line.
Davey Johnson told reporters at the Winter Meetings a few weeks back that in spite of the struggles Danny Espinosa went through in 2012, he still had faith in his second baseman and thought he'd not yet reached his potential, comparing him to Ian Desmond before Desmond's breakout 2012 campaign. Espinosa is going to be the Nationals' starting second baseman in 2013 barring any moves or unexpected changes of heart on the manager's part, but he also told reporters, including the Washington Post's James Wagner, that Espinosa should be motivated by the fact that he has Lombardozzi breathing down his neck should he struggle.
"'He’s got a guy that wants his job and thinks he’s better than him [in] [Steve] Lombardozzi,'" Johnson told the WaPost reporter. And Davey Johnson knows he has a player who can fill in when needed and produce at the major league level. The Nationals' manager knew he wanted Lombardozzi on his roster after seeing him for a short time late in 2012. There's little doubt Lombardozzi will be there again in 2013. Bill James' projections have the now-24-year-old Lombardozzi getting into 101 games next season and posting a .293/.339/.399 line over 348 PAs.