In the humble, cheerful, grinning, disbelieving face of backup catcher Jose Lobaton, in his one swing and his three-run homer-through-the-wind Sunday, this playoff series between the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers lives and breathes and has its being. Until such time as a Dodgers player reverses the force of Lobaton’s blow in Game 2, this series is his sweet parable, his turn to preach.
“Feeling great. Everybody’s going to feel great now. Happy fly,” said a beaming Lobaton, thinking of the Nats’ coast-to-coast flight to Los Angeles after their 5-2 win.
That flight promises to be one long toast to Lobaton: the warmer-upper of pitchers, the teaser of the manager, the remover-of-helmets for every Nats player who hits a home run and now, the slugger who may have turned a postseason series on its head.
This series was supposed to be impacted by the absence of injured all-star catcher Wilson Ramos, .307-hitting slugger. What could Lobaton and rookie Pedro Severino do to compensate? In Game 1, Severino doubled off the left field wall against Clayton Kershaw. Now, Lobaton has defied nature.
For 3½ innings, the Dodgers and the wind had it their way, taking a 2-0 lead as the wind snickered with every battle it won. A long blow by Dodgers star Corey Seager, a true 6-foot-5 power hitter, appeared to be a double off the bullpen fence — at least — yet left fielder Jayson Werth caught it in front of the warning track. Then came Lobaton.
“The inning before I was talking to the umpire. ‘Wow, that wind is really bad for hitters now,’ ” said Lobaton, who came up with Daniel Murphy and Danny Espinosa on base after a walk and a hit-by-pitch by lefty Rich Hill.
“I hit it really good, just I don’t know if it’s going to go out,” said the switch-hitting Lobaton, who’d hardly be the man to ask since he’s only hit two homers batting right-handed in 273 career at-bats. “When it went out I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ ”
“Loby is such a pro. Always prepared, always working on every part of his game whenever we need him,” said Murphy, who turned to Lobaton and set him up with a softball question. “How long has it been since you got to bat right-handed?”
“A month-and-a-half,” said Lobaton, smiling sheepishly.
“See?” said Murphy, making his case.
The Lobaton tale has all the added delicious detail of wonderfully bad pulp fiction. He was having a nightmare game, a Where Is Wilson afternoon. With the bases full in the bottom of the second inning, he swung at the first pitch and grounded back to Hill to start a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning. In the third, Bryce Harper threw out Justin Turner, who was sliding into the plate — or would have, except for Lobaton.
“I was pretty sure that I catch the ball and I was pretty sure that he was out, and then I check my glove and it wasn’t there,” Lobaton said. “I feel bad for Harpy. It was a good throw.”
The Dodgers may not grasp the symbolism of Lobaton as hero. But they may feel it in coming games. Once, Lobaton taped a ball to the sweet spot of his bat barrel and carried it in the dugout for days to teach the bat where it was supposed to make contact. Of course, what he was really doing was what he always does: bringing a smile, a moment of relaxation to a grinding, spirit-sapping sport.
“Loby mocks me all the time,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “I’ll tell the guys to ‘use your legs’ in hitting. He’ll chirp, ‘Next week.’ I’ll say, ‘Keep your head down’ or ‘Look at me’ to the third base coach. I don’t even think he’s listening, but he’s repeating everything I say.” Behind Baker’s back, of course.
Baker gets points for good hunches, and homework, too, in this series. He thought Severino would “see” Kershaw better than most hitters might. He did, ripping three balls. Baker remembered that Lobaton had coped well with Hill’s curve — one of the game’s nastiest. Baker even remembered that, when Lobaton played in Tampa Bay, he hit an important playoff homer to help Tampa Bay reach the World Series. “Loby’s not intimidated,” he said.
The Dodgers didn’t hide the impact of the sudden shift in this series. Seager homered in the first inning of both games. His low rocket into the first row in the right field bleachers off Tanner Roark established an eerie similarity to Friday night. Seager homered, Kershaw struck out the side. Thee Nats never got the big clutch hit they needed and lost 4-3. This time, Seager homered again, Hill struck out the side, the Dodgers led 2-0 and Lobaton left the bases loaded.
“We had Roark on the ropes. Through five innings we left 11 guys on base,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. “We had an opportunity to really put him away. Some hard-hit balls didn’t find outfield grass. Afterward, they get the bullpen in there, the shadows start creeping and it gets tougher to hit.”
And the one pitch to Lobaton seemed to change everything? “It did. It did,” Roberts said. “It’s just one of those things where the momentum shifted that Lobaton at-bat.”
Momentum Shift Acknowledgement Alert: You don’t get many of them from losing managers in October. It’s honest. But it’s not in the managing manual.
A postseason series evolves, unsure of its destination until players and teams, in a few crucial moments, define its direction. Once that course is set, events are required of equal or greater force, and sometimes of comparable symbolism, to reverse the momentum again.
In retrospect, will Lobaton’s swing seem like the turning point of this series, or just one turning point with Dodger rebuttals still to come? Before this series began, the Nats’ Jayson Werth stood by the batting cage. “The key to this series is who wins Game 3,” he said, out of the blue.
For that crucial game, Jose Lobaton has ensured that the Nats will arrive with 3,000 miles of smiles.