With help from mom back home, Vargas making name with Nats

SAN DIEGO – He had talked about his home run off Yu Darvish, not to mention his subsequent single off the Padres right-hander. He had talked about his defensive work at third base and mentorship of rookie shortstop CJ Abrams. And he had talked about the opportunity he’s been given by the Nationals to play third base every day after spending the season’s first four months at Triple-A.

But when he was done with all that, once he had answered every question reporters had for him following Thursday night’s 3-1 victory at Petco Park, Ildemaro Vargas let everyone know there was one more thing he wanted to say.

“I want to dedicate this home run to my mom,” the infielder said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “Unfortunately, because of the visas, she’s unable to see me play. But when I talked to her today, she motivated me and said that I was going to have a great game today. So I want to thank her and tell her that this was for her.”

This revelation, of course, only prompted more questions, more answers and the sharing of a sweet (but in some ways bittersweet) story of a 31-year-old trying to stick in the big leagues while his biggest supporter can only watch from afar.

Gaudys Barreto lives in Venezuela. Her son has spent parts of six seasons in the majors with five different franchises, the Nationals representing only the latest to give him a shot. And because it has been difficult to secure her a visa, Barreto has been unable to come to the United States to watch Vargas play this year.

The two speak over the phone every day, though, and it’s clear how much influence Barreto has had on Vargas, not only as his mother but as an actual baseball sounding board.

“She’s my favorite hitting coach,” he said. “It’s my routine every day. She always motivates me, tells me to enjoy the game. And today, she told me to look for a fastball, because they’re going to attack you with fastballs.”

Sure enough, when Darvish tried to sneak a high cut fastball past him in the top of the third Thursday night, Vargas was ready for it. He blasted the ball 398 feet to right field for a home run, his first since joining the Nationals and only the ninth of his major league career.

Then, for good measure, Vargas lined a single to center in the top of the sixth, making him 2-for-2 against Darvish while the rest of the Nationals lineup was 0-for-18 at the time.

That Vargas even finds himself in this situation is somewhat remarkable. Released by the Cubs in May after going 3-for-23, he was immediately picked up by the Nationals, who sent him to Triple-A Rochester. A defensive whiz at three infielder positions, he wasn’t known much for his offensive skills.

But when the Nats traded Ehire Adrianza to the Braves the day before the Aug. 2 deadline, they called Vargas up to replace him. And all he’s done since it hit. After going 2-for-3 on Monday, he’s now batting a cool .341 (15-for-44) in Washington while also shining in the field.

“We knew he could field his position anywhere we put him,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We also knew that he brought a lot of energy. He’s a guy, honestly, in our clubhouse and our dugout, he’s always fired up and ready to go. … I love that.”

With struggling veteran Maikel Franco now buried on the bench, Vargas has taken over as the Nationals’ everyday third baseman. It’s an unlikely outcome for a journeyman, but he fully appreciates this unexpected opportunity.

And until he sees her again in person this winter, Vargas will keep taking whatever advice he can get from his mother, whose first name he had tattooed on his left forearm.

“I love you, mom,” he said.

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