With surprise homer, Lobaton gets monkey off Nationals' backs

The reaction the moment Jose Lobaton made contact wasn't joyous. There was no instantaneous celebration in the Nationals dugout, nor in the batter's box when Lobaton connected with Rich Hill's 1-1 curveball in the bottom of the fourth inning and sent it soaring toward left field.

Any other day, the Nationals would have been jumping up and down and Lobaton would have been flipping his bat before a triumphant trip around the bases. But with a persistent 25 mph wind blowing in from left field throughout Game 2 of the National League Division Series, there was no reason for anyone to honestly believe Lobaton's ball was going to clear the fence.

"When he hit it, a bunch of people in the dugout were cussing, because we didn't think he could get it out," said Jayson Werth, who said he had never seen the wind blow that hard from that direction in this ballpark. "All kinds of expletives were being thrown around."

"I didn't think anybody could hit a home run out of left field today, the way that wind was blowing everything back," manager Dusty Baker added.

And yet as the ball kept going and Andrew Toles kept retreating toward the fence, hope slowly built. The ball had left Lobaton's bat at 103 mph, his launch angle 28 degrees. And it traveled just enough, 394 feet, to clear the wall, land in the visitors' bullpen and ignite a roar inside Nationals Park the likes of which hadn't been heard in these parts in quite some time.

lobaton-nlds-home-run-sidebar.jpg"When it went out, I was like, 'Wow, that's pretty cool,' " Lobaton said with a laugh. "Everybody was asking the same. And a couple guys in the dugout are like, 'Wow, maybe that moment wasn't windy.' Maybe that moment it just stopped and gave me something extra."

Whether it was divine intervention or just some muscle nobody realized he had, Lobaton's three-run blast today was exactly the kind of moment the Nationals so badly needed. It gave them their first lead of this series, propelled them to a 5-2 victory over the Dodgers and sent them on a long flight to Los Angeles a reinvigorated squad heading into Game 3 on Monday afternoon.

"It kind of felt like the monkey jumped off our back there a little bit," Werth said. "It was a big sigh of relief in the dugout. We needed a big hit."

Did they ever. After going 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position during their 4-3 loss in Game 1 on Friday night, the Nationals squandered another golden opportunity earlier in Game 2. Now consider their similar failures in these situations during their 2014 NLDS loss to the Giants for added context.

Here are the gory totals: Prior to Lobaton's homer, the Nationals had been 3-for-34 with runners in scoring position over thier previous 57 innings of postseason baseball. Perhaps they weren't visibly showing the agony the way fans both in the park and at home surely were, but they knew it.

"It's a massive swing," second baseman Daniel Murphy said. "I can't speak to how big it is. ... For him to get that blast right there and put us out in front, it gave us the chance to extend the lead and is the first time we were able to play from in front instead of behind."

Indeed, the Nationals had trailed in every one of the 12 innings they had played in this series up to that point. Every at-bat felt like an uphill battle. Every pitch thrown by one of their own hurlers felt vital, with no more margin for error.

But once Lobaton's ball cleared the fence, all of that changed. The Nationals now were the aggressors. They played with confidence. They pitched with the knowledge they had some cushion at last.

And they didn't let up. They delivered three more hits with runners in scoring position the rest of the game, with Murphy providing the two RBI singles that extended their lead from 3-2 to 5-2.

"Up and down the lineup, we were able to keep traffic out there," said Murphy, now 4-for-6 with two walks in the series. "Quality at-bats. And the more chances we give ourselves, the better chance we have to win."

That Lobaton, of all people, was the one to break through the glass, was remarkable in itself. He hit .232 in 39 games all season, drove in only eight runs. He took only 15 at-bats against left-handers, in part because he had been hampered of late by a right ankle injury that didn't let him push off his back leg the way he needed to when batting right-handed.

"When is the last time you hit right-handed in a game?" Murphy asked his teammate, the two sitting side-by-side in the interview room at Nationals Park.

"Like a month and a half," Lobaton replied.

"That's just professional right there," Murphy said. "And it's fun to watch."

This had been shaping up to be a particularly tough day for Lobaton, who was a bit of a surprise choice behind the plate after rookie Pedro Severino had started Game 1. Lobaton came up with the bases loaded and one out in the second, yet tapped a weak grounder back to the mound on the first pitch he saw from Hill. The ensuing 1-2-3 double play killed the Nationals' chances and left the sellout crowd groaning with displeasure.

Then in the top of the third, Lobaton was in position to make a key defensive play at the plate, receiving Bryce Harper's strong throw from right field and going to apply the tag to Justin Turner just in time. But as Lobaton went to tag Turner on the leg, the ball lay several feet away, having slipped out of his mitt in the process.

"I was pretty sure that I caught the ball, and I was pretty sure that he was out," he said. "And then I check my glove, and it wasn't there. ... But you know, it's something that it's going to happen. The only thing that you've got to do is just play and keep going. There's nothing we can do in the past. It's something that we can do for the next at-bat and concentrate."

One inning later, Lobaton did just that. He did the unthinkable. And because of it, we've now got a series, folks.

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