Washingtons Brian Bixler slides safely into home to score the game-winning… (Kathy Kmonicek/Associated…)
NEW YORK — Steve Lombardozzi walked off the Citi Field diamond Monday night and heard a familiar, surprising voice coming from the stands. He looked over to the end of the visitors’ dugout and saw a face he did not expect. His father, also named Steve, had driven to the game from Fulton, Md., without telling his son.
Lombardozzi didn’t know, but his father had watched him all night. He saw Lombardozzi make outs in his first three plate appearances, which gave Lombardozzi 15 big league at-bats without one hit. And he saw his son smack a knuckleball into left field in the seventh inning, the first hit of his major league career, the single that gave the Washington Nationals a 3-2 victory over the New York Mets before 27,015.
Lombardozzi’s father wore a 1987 World Series ring on his right index finger, an artifact from his playing days with the Minnesota Twins. Later, tears welled in his eyes as he admitted he had a new favorite baseball memory. When Lombardozzi walked over to him, stunned to see his father and the rest of his family, they embraced. Steve was crying too hard to speak.
“He couldn’t get too much out,” Lombardozzi said. “He was pretty emotional. I think they were just as relieved as me.”
Lombardozzi, a graduate of Atholton High in Columbia, joined the Nationals last Tuesday after splitting time this year between Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Syracuse. This weekend, the Nationals named him their minor league player of the year.
When he arrived in the clubhouse, it felt “surreal,” he said. His introduction to the majors had been harsher. In his first 12 at-bats at Nationals Park, he had gone hitless. He drew a walk in one plate appearance. He had had a line drive snared by a leaping first baseman. He had worked a 12-pitch at-bat. Lombardozzi, 22, still did not have his first hit.
Steve worried about his impact. Between 30 and 50 family members and friends had packed the seats at Nationals Park, less than 45 minutes from where Lombardozzi grew up. He wouldn’t miss being there for his son’s first hit, but he didn’t want to add pressure.
“We were always coming,” Steve said. “D.C. and Maryland, it’s his home town. There were a lot of friends and family, phone calls, e-mails, text messages. It was overwhelming. We just thought, ‘Let’s let him go, not let him have to think about anybody and relax.’ We decided we would come up here without him knowing, not be aware of it. Get away from home.”
Manager Davey Johnson gave Lombardozzi the start Monday night because regular second baseman Danny Espinosa has fallen into slumps after facing Mets starter R.A. Dickey, a knuckleballer. Lombardozzi had only faced a knuckleball pitcher once or twice in the minors. “When they told me it was a knuckleballer,” he said, “I was like, ‘Oh, gosh.’ ”
In his first three at-bats, he made three more outs, including a strikeout in the fifth inning at the end of a nine-pitch at bat. His hitless streak had reached 15 at-bats. In the dugout, teammates told him to take a deep breath, stay calm.
“I knew it would come at some point,” Lombardozzi said. “I just had to stay patient.”
The Nationals took a 2-0 lead after Lombardozzi struck out, scoring their second run after Rick Ankiel’s single scored Ryan Zimmerman.
After he retired the first two Mets in the sixth, starter Ross Detwiler had retired 17 of 19 on the night, having allowed only one walk and one hit. He was on the way to the best start of his young career. And then he allowed two walks and two hit, the second a bloop double by Angel Pagan that tied the score and provided a sudden end to his night.
The Nationals responded with fits and starts in the seventh. Wilson Ramos led off with a single and moved to second on a wild pitch. Ian Desmond took a defensive, inside-out swing to move him to third. Brian Bixler grounded to short and Ramos was caught in a rundown, during which Bixler alertly ran to second.
Up came Lombardozzi. The go-ahead run stood on second base with two outs. The score was tied at 2. He had taken 15 at-bats without a hit, but he had the opportunity to win a big league game.
“That’s probably the biggest situation I’ve ever been in,” Lombardozzi said.
Dickey threw him three knuckleballs, and the third the switch-hitting Lombardozzi, batting left-handed, shot the other way, toward left field. Shortstop Jose Reyes started toward the ball. “Please get by him,” Lombardozzi thought. It bounded into left field, and Bixler dashed home.
“It was a big, deep breath afterwards,” Lombardozzi said. “To drive the guy in and get an RBI was a pretty awesome feeling.”
In the stands, his father choked up. Earlier in the week, Steve wondered how many fathers and sons had played in the major leagues. He Googled it. The answer he found was 191.
“We were going to stay with him until he got it,” Steve said. “We were going to stay with him to see him get it. It was just very emotional, more so than if he would have got it on his first at-bat or his first day. There was a lot of tension built up.”
When the game ended, reliever Todd Coffey handed Lombardozzi a ball and told him it was the one from his first hit. Someone had scribbled on it, “0 for 15, now 1 for 16.”
“I was like, ‘I hope this is a fake ball,’ ” Lombardozzi said.
It was. The real one rested next to his locker after the game. He had not yet decided what he would do with it. He walked out of the clubhouse and down the corridor, where his father was trying to remember the first thing that came out of his mouth when he watched his son’s first big league hit.
“It wasn’t words,” he said.