Patrick Reddington: Minor move pays big dividends for Nationals

Jayson Werth hit the big game-tying ninth-inning double last Wednesday night, on a 3-0 pitch from Angels closer Ernest Frieri. Adam LaRoche took Fernando Salas to left in the next at bat for a walk-off winner that capped off an improbable comeback in a game the Nationals appeared out of until catcher Jose Lobaton homered to start the bottom of the ninth inning.

Both Werth and LaRoche pointed to Lobaton's blast to right field as the spark that got the offense started after they were held to one run on seven hits in six innings of work by Angels starter Jered Weaver and were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position overall through eight innings.

Lobaton fell behind 0-2 to Frieri, who has since lost his job as Angels closer, but got hold of a belt-high 94 mph fastball inside and lined it to right, just fair and into the Nationals bullpen.

"The damage was really done before my at-bat," LaRoche told reporters after the game. "Some great at-bats. Lobaton comes up, puts a run on the board quick and I can't imagine anybody thinking (Werth) is going to swing 3-0 right there. It surprised all of us. Came up huge. So big win, needless to say. We needed that."

"I feel like the Lobaton at bat, it was the spark we needed," Werth said. "It seems like, the last few days really we just can't get it going. We have our chances, but I think that was the hit we needed and some good at bats after that."

Before that night's game, Nationals skipper Matt Williams spent a few minutes talking about the Nats' 29-year-old catcher getting comfortable at the plate after he was 4-for-7 in the previous two games leading up to his first home run of the year.

"I think he's toned it back a little bit," Williams said. "Again, any time you're with a new team, you're trying to understand the pitching staff, certainly. Handling them, that's first priority.

"He's getting more and more comfortable with his teammates. And he's hitting the ball back through the middle, which tells me that he's just hitting singles. He's worried about hitting the ball through the middle of the diamond and hitting singles right now. So his swing is a little bit shorter for me and his approach has been good. Left-center, back through the middle. He's been playing well."

Lobaton has also been playing more than was planned with Wilson Ramos out since opening day with a broken hamate bone in his left hand, but the Nationals acquired him from the Tampa Bay Rays this winter in case anything did go wrong with Ramos, as it did in each of the previous two seasons.

Ramos tore his ACL and meniscus in 2012 and injured his hamstring twice last season, missing a month before returning to the lineup and going on a tear that lasted through the end of the 2013 campaign. Ramos figured to get the bulk of the time behind the plate this season, but with the 26-year-old catcher once again out of the lineup, the Nationals have had to rely on the depth their behind the plate to compensate for the loss of their hard-hitting backstop.

Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano were the top options behind the Ramos before the deal for Lobaton, so Nats general manager Mike Rizzo decided to upgrade the position this winter with a catcher who could back up or fill in if necessary.

"Although Wilson is clearly our No. 1 catcher," Rizzo told reporters after trading right-hander Nathan Karns to the Rays to pry Lobaton away. "We certainly want him to be available throughout the whole season. And (Lobaton) is a capable backup in case something does happen with Wilson."

Lobaton has filled in admirably with Ramos once again sidelined, posting a .266/.329/.406 line with six doubles and a home run in 70 plate appearances, and Leon has served as the backup while the Nationals wait for their No.1 catcher to recover from surgery to remove the hamate bone from his left hand.

As well as Lobaton has played, as Williams discussed last week, the Nationals are still eager to get Ramos back in the lineup.

"I think he knows our pitching staff better than anybody else," Williams said. "So that's a comfort level for the pitchers. That's a comfort level for the catchers, certainly. That being said, I think our catchers have done a fine job. But any time you lose somebody of that caliber, it's going to hurt your club in one way or another."

Having Lobaton available not only gives the Nats a legitimate everyday option while Ramos is out of the lineup, he allows the Nationals and Ramos to take the time to get back to as close to 100 percent as possible before he returns. The trade that brought him to the Nats was a shrewd one by Rizzo. Everyone involved wants Ramos behind the plate as much as possible, but while he's out, Lobaton has had a chance to get to know the Nationals staff and endear himself to teammates and fans alike.

Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. Follow him on Twitter: @federalbaseball. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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