Marty Niland: Lobaton’s homer was no October surprise to Baker

The National League Division Series between the Nationals and Dodgers may be knotted at one game apiece, bit when it comes to drama and momentum, the Nats are clearly ahead after Sunday’s 5-2 victory

And while fans are rightly cheering backup catcher Jose Lobaton as the unlikely hero the team needed to even the series, let’s not overlook one clear advantage the Nats have in this series that made his momentous fourth-inning swing possible: manager Dusty Baker.

It’s easy to criticize a manager’s decisions in the postseason. Remember former skipper Matt Williams’ move to pull Jordan Zimmermann one out away from victory in Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS? In a game the Nats eventually lost in 18 innings?

The online second-guessing of Baker started early this year. Why would he include Michael A. Taylor and his .278 on base percentage on the postseason roster? Why leave Matt Belisle and his 1.76 ERA off?

And what of Lobaton? After Pedro Severino hit three balls hard off Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, the critics were laughing at Baker for replacing him with a switch-hitter whose best at-bats have come left-handed. The stat geeks would point out that as a right-handed hitter versus left-handed pitchers, he was just .229/.284/.305 coming into the game.

But the Nats skipper knew that Lobaton had, in Baker’s words, “a little bit of success” against Dodgers starter Rich Hill. How much success? Lobaton was 3-for-3 with two doubles lifetime against the L.A. lefty. Baker also knew that in 2013 Lobaton had hit a walk-off homer to give Tampa Bay a 5-4 win over Boston in Game 3 of the ALDS, the only game the Rays would win in the series.

Small sample size? Who cares? Let’s roll! Baker and the Nats came up with a seven.

Now, with the series back in Los Angeles, the pressure is on the Dodgers and rookie manager Dave Roberts to solve their own problems against left-handed pitchers with Gio Gonzalez on the mound for Washington and a trio of unscored-upon southpaws waiting in the bullpen.

It may be tempting to criticize the manager’s decisions in the postseason, but Baker has earned himself a pass with that and plenty of other moves he’s made so far. Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .429 after people were accusing him of being washed up in the regular season. Daniel Murphy is hitting .667 with two RBIs after sitting out the last several games of the regular season with an injury. And he’s playing fine defense at second base. Danny Espinosa may have struck out five times this postseason, but he was hit by a pitch to get on for Lobaton’s homer.

Nats fans have been treated to the most exiting of the four division series played this year, the only one guaranteed not to be over in three games, with tension rising on almost every pitch. Let’s enjoy the ride, and give thanks for Baker, his intuition and his experience.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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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