By his own estimation, Jose Lobaton had not taken an at bat from the right side of the plate in around a month and a half before he stepped in against Los Angeles Dodgers’ lefty Rich Hill and hit a two-out, two-run home run to left field in Nationals Park to put Washington ahead 3-2 in what ended up a 5-2 win in Game 2 of this past October’s NLDS matchup.
It wasn’t quite as long as a month and a half, like Lobaton said, he’d faced two lefties from the right side in the last month of the season, but he hadn’t had many at bats and still managed to come up big in that spot.
“José just does a great job of coming to work every day, he's always prepared, and it's been fun to watch him,” Daniel Murphy told reporters in a joint press conference with the catcher after the Nationals’ win.
“He's had to take some time off because of some injuries, but it seems like no matter what he gets in there, he puts quality at-bats on the opposing pitcher.
“I think it's easy to see behind the plate how good he is. His hands are so soft. He can present so many pitches as strikes. He throws the ball well. But most impressive thing that I've seen is to take the layoff that he's taken this year on a couple of occasions; because one, [Wilson Ramos] has played so well, and two, he's had to deal with some unfortunate injuries.
“To be able to come in and have really, really good professional at-bats, and we saw it again today.”
Lobaton told reporters at Nationals’ Winterfest earlier this month that the elbow issue he was dealing with late this season is no longer an issue and fans still like to talk to him about that NLDS blast.
“The people remind me a lot,” he said. “Every time I’m around, ‘Wow, that homer!’ It’s something you want people to see more of you all the time, so when you give it to them, something like that, it’s special for them so it’s special for us. I feel like that homer and the homer that I hit in Tampa, those two homers mean... unbelievable.”
The home run Lobaton hit for the Rays was a walk-off winner that lifted Tampa Bay to their only win over the Boston Red Sox in their ALDS matchup in 2013.
Lobaton was traded to the Nationals that winter.
Over the last three seasons in D.C., the now-32-year-old catcher has put up a combined .223/.292/.316 line with 16 doubles and eight home runs in 149 games and 499 plate appearances.
He finished the 2016 campaign with a .232/.319/.374 line, three doubles and three home runs in 39 games and 114 PAs, over which he was worth 0.3 fWAR.
Lobaton avoided arbitration with the Nationals this winter, signing a 1-year/$1.575M deal. He’s under control through this season, and can become a free agent next winter.
He admitted he’s not sure about what role he’ll play in 2017 after the Nats traded for veteran backstop Derek Norris earlier this month.
Lobaton hasn’t talked baseball with anyone in the Nationals’ front office yet.
“I haven’t talked to them, other than to say, ‘Hi.’ Nothing about baseball. We haven’t talked about what’s going to happen. I’m really confident in how feel I now that I’m healthy.
“I’ve got to show them in Spring Training and then that’s when I’m going to figure out what’s going to happen.”
His thoughts on the trade for Norris, which put his own and Pedro Severino’s role in question?
“That I didn’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “That I was like, ‘Okay, what’s next? What are they going to do with [Severino], me and Derek, what’s going to happen?’ So that was my first question, and then I figured out that I can’t do anything and I’ve just got to show up at Spring Training and do my best.”
Will it, as seems most likely, be Norris and Lobaton splitting time in the majors, while Severino, just 23, gets regular at bats in the minors? Any chance Severino claims the starting job with a strong Spring? Will Lobaton play a bigger role behind Norris, if it works out that way, than he did behind Ramos?
The elbow tendinitis he was dealing with last season has cleared up for the most part, Lobaton said, after he followed doctor’s orders to simply give it some rest.
“They told me that’s going to be the best thing. I worked a lot, been working a lot on my elbow, a lot of new exercises, new exercises that I’ve never seen before. A lot of ice and it’s been feeling really good. I haven’t been able to test in a game, because I’m not playing, but I’ve been catching some bullpens and stuff like that.”
Lobaton said the way he finished the season, has him feeling positive as he heads into his fourth campaign in the nation’s capital.
“I feel like what I did in the end of the season made me feel good, made me have some confidence in myself when we went to the postseason, so I feel like overall, defensively I was good and offensively, it’s always been my weak side, but I’m working on it.”