Lo Duca Is a Breed of Catcher That the Nats Find Appealing

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

VIERA, Fla., March 24 -- On April 5, the Washington Nationals are scheduled to play an afternoon game in St. Louis. With any luck, Paul Lo Duca will be behind the plate, just as he expects to be when the Nationals open their season -- and their new ballpark -- on Sunday night. He might just come up in position to drive in the winning run.

Late that afternoon, less than 300 miles northeast of St. Louis, a group of horses will load into the starting gates at Hawthorne Race Course outside Chicago. The Illinois Derby will start, and one of the 10 or so horses in which Lo Duca has a stake -- a 3-year-old named Golden Spikes -- will be off.

"My heart pumps more than when I'm up to the plate with the bases loaded to drive in the winning run," Lo Duca said. "It's definitely nerve-wracking, definitely weird."

During his two seasons as a New York Met, Lo Duca drew as much attention for his off-field foibles -- from gambling to tabloid gossip about romantic dalliances -- as he did for his play on the field and his role in the clubhouse, which was significant. Since he signed a one-year, $5 million contract with the Nationals in December, he was mentioned heavily in the report of former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Now, more than five weeks after arriving here and apologizing for past transgressions -- but offering no details about the Mitchell report -- Lo Duca is hoping he can move on to baseball, with a little horse racing mixed in. On Monday, he caught seven innings and went 2 for 3 with a double and an RBI against the Detroit Tigers, his most significant test as he comes back from a torn meniscus in his left knee suffered in January. He absolutely expects to catch the opener Sunday night.

Thus far, too, Lo Duca has fit in well with his teammates -- immediately taking over the club's NCAA tournament pool, complete with elaborate charts that adorn the clubhouse walls.

"This is kind of like going back to the minor leagues for me," Lo Duca said. "Guys hang out, have a couple of beers, and talk about baseball. It's not everyone living 30 minutes away from the park and never seeing each other."

The Nationals acquired Lo Duca in part because they believe, as a .288 career hitter, he can help their offense. But he is coming off the worst offensive year of his career, one in which he posted a .311 on-base percentage as he battled hamstring problems.

"I just need to be healthy," he said. "I need to stay away from leg problems."

If he does, the Nationals think he will make the bottom of the order more difficult to navigate.

"He can bunt a guy over if you need him to," said Manager Manny Acta, who was the Mets' third base coach during Lo Duca's first season in New York. "He can move a guy over -- money in the bank doing that type of stuff. And you know he's not going to strike out. It's huge when you're in the middle of a rally."

His defensive reputation, however, isn't as solid. Yet he could offer a twist. Former Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, dealt to the Mets in the offseason, had a reputation for massaging pitchers, avoiding conflict. Teammates already are predicting Lo Duca will get in the faces of pitchers this season. Though he is still getting to know the staff -- he caught right-hander Jason Bergmann for the first time Monday -- pitchers who have worked with him in the past like him as a receiver.

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