WASHINGTON -- There was only one way a right-handed hitter was going to yank a ball out of Nationals Park on Sunday, figured Jayson Werth, who has played more games here than all but two players in club history. A sharp line drive down the line might -- might --
WASHINGTON -- There was only one way a right-handed hitter was going to yank a ball out of Nationals Park on Sunday, figured Jayson Werth, who has played more games here than all but two players in club history. A sharp line drive down the line might -- might -- have a chance, given the winds that were gusting straight in from left field as high as 39 mph.
Nothing else likely would.
So when backup catcher Jose Lobaton lifted a fly ball into the teeth of the wind during the fourth inning of National League Division Series Game 2 on Sunday, Werth watched it fly with a bit of remorse. A good swing, but ultimately wasted. Breaking from second base, Daniel Murphy nearly stumbled, hesitating because he thought left fielder Andrew Toles would catch the ball. In the dugout, Nationals manager Dusty Baker figured the inning was probably over.
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But Lobaton put such a charge into Rich Hill's hanging curveball -- 103 mph off the bat, according to Statcast™ -- that Toles kept drifting back, and back, and back. And finally he ran out of real estate, turning to watch as Lobaton's three-run homer transformed not only the Nationals' series-tying 5-2 win over the Dodgers, but also the complexion of their October. Game 3 is set for 4 p.m. ET/1 PT on MLBN Monday at Dodger Stadium.
"Man, that was huge," Baker said.
"It's a massive swing," added Murphy.
That Lobaton was even a participant in Sunday's game was a matter of circumstance. Pressed into duty because of Wilson Ramos' season-ending knee injury, the seven-year veteran watched from the bench on Friday as 23-year-old prospect Pedro Severino started Game 1 of the NLDS. Two days later, Baker went with Lobaton, whose Nationals came to the plate down two runs in the fourth inning, in danger of falling into an 0-2 series hole.
They began rallying when Hill walked Murphy, and hit Danny Espinosa with a pitch. With two outs, that brought up Lobaton, whose previous claim to fame was a walk-off homer in the 2013 ALDS -- a career highlight in a climate-controlled stadium.
Sunday's required a fair bit more muscle.
"The wind blowing in, he must have hit it really hard to take it out," Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal said.
Crunch the numbers and that much is measurable. Lobaton's home run was the switch-hitter's first barreled ball -- a Statcast™ designation for any exit velocity/launch angle combination with an expected batting average of at least .500 and slugging percentage of at least 1.500 -- from the right side this season. Even Lobaton's regular-season home run off Dodgers lefty Scott Kazmir -- his only hit of the entire season against a left-handed pitcher -- did not meet those qualifications.
It was also the first home run Hill had allowed on a curveball since making his Dodgers debut on Aug. 24, which is no mere detail. Hill not only threw a higher percentage of curves this season than any starter in baseball, but also a higher total number of curves than all but two pitchers.
He can't regret many more than the one to Lobaton.
"I'm disappointed, really disappointed," Hill said. "We're tied in this series now because I didn't execute."
The mood was different in the home clubhouse, where Lobaton returned to find a piece of computer paper taped to the top of his locker. "Joe Lobaton," the sheet read. "Star of the game!"
Spend more than a minute or two in that room and it becomes clear the Nationals are infatuated with their backup catcher, calling him "a friend" and a "great teammate" and a "professional." Earlier this season, Lobaton went viral when he cut the bottoms out of two Gatorade cups in the Nationals' dugout, fashioning them into a pair of glasses. His teammates think he's a hoot.
More imperative is his baseball ability, which Lobaton mostly demonstrated this summer through defense and pitch framing. With Ramos recuperating from a torn ACL in his right knee, Lobaton and Severino will continue to split time behind the plate for the Nationals for as long as they're still playing.
A week ago, that might have seemed sketchy, considering Ramos' All-Star season. But if Lobaton can overcome Sunday's wind, there's no telling what else he might be able to provide.
"Right now, we don't have Willy," Lobaton said. "I've got to try to do something for the team. And I'm not saying that I'm going to be like Willy and hit a homer and hit .300, but I'm going to … play my defense all the time and play hard, and then see what happens. Like today -- I didn't try to hit the homer and I got the homer."
Anthony DiComo has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2008.