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Nationals' Steve Lombardozzi stars in supporting role

Special occasions in major league baseball are often inhaled more than savored, the inexorable pace of a 162-game schedule making it to difficult to pause and reflect.

But Atholton grad and Washington Nationals second baseman Steve Lombardozzi took in the moment last week because even after playing parts of three big league seasons, traveling across the country and playing in the postseason, some parts of the journey are still worth celebrating. Even if that celebration comes with the challenge of not being an everyday player.

That was true when Lombardozzi returned to Oriole Park at Camden Yards — the ballpark in which he spent summer evenings daydreaming about one day playing major league baseball.

"It's pretty special because I grew up coming to games here," said Lombardozzi, 24, in front of his locker before the Nationals' 2-0 loss in Baltimore May 30. The day before Lombardozzi gave back the starting second base job to Danny Espinosa, who was returning from injury. Although Lombardozzi wanted to be in the starting lineup in front of family and friends, he didn't lose sight of the big picture.

"It really hit me last year when I got to play here that I was in the big leagues," he said.

Lombardozzi, whose father, Steve Sr., played second base for the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros from 1985 to 1990, remembers many trips to Camden Yards, first joining his father to watch the Twins play and later enjoying games with friends.

"We're so close to Baltimore (in Howard County's Fulton), so we'd come down to watch the O's play, and then when the Twins were coming to town or a team that my dad knew, we'd get to come down, come into the locker room, watch (batting practice), so that was pretty neat," he said. "I remember coming here with friends, Friday nights ... things like that are good memories, so it's pretty neat to actually be on the field now."

And even though the novelty of seeing Lombardozzi in a Nationals uniform is wearing off, his fans still make a big deal of his return.

"During (batting practice) I hear people yelling out, 'Lombo.' I got to see some of my friends right before the game yesterday on the sideline ... even just being able to see them and spend a couple of minutes with them is cool."

Natonals shortstop Ian Desmond noticed his teammate's fan club.

"I see a lot of Lombardozzi paraphernalia around this ballpark every time we come here," Desmond said. "We give him a hard time about it and tell him to stay humble and mess with him and pull his leg."

A challenging time

The two-game visit here, part of a four-game series that started with two games in Washington, illustrated the highs and lows of a game that is often humbling.

Espinosa's return highlighted Lombardozzi's value as a role player.

"He's played awfully well," Nationals manager and former Oriole second baseman and manager Davey Johnson said before last Thursday's game. "He's a valuable part of this ballclub. He can play infield, outfield, and he's a heck of a second baseman."

His teammates recognize the job Lombardozzi has done to excel in his role, including a game-winning sacrifice fly in the ninth to give the Nationals a 3-2 comeback win over the Mets on Tuesday, June 4.

"I think every ballclub needs that consistently stable being, whether it's from a coach or a player. For us, he serves that," Desmond said. "He comes to the ballpark, sticks to his routine, doesn't try to play outside of his element. He stays in his lane, and every team needs a guy like that. Everyone can kind of waver if you have that little rock over there that never varies."

Lombardozzi has played the good soldier while filling in for Espinosa and All-Star outfielder Bryce Harper.

"I need to be ready to play when my name is called, and if I'm not playing, I'm trying to learn when I'm on the bench," Lombardozzi said. "Last year I was kind of learning what my role was going to be and learning how to prepare myself when I'm not playing, staying ready. It's tough to do, coming off of the bench, but I try to use it as a challenge and get better at that job that I have to handle. And when I do get a chance to play and start consecutive games, I'm not trying to do too much."

In it for the long haul

Because of his versatility and approach, Lombardozzi has become a valuable member of one of the most promising teams in the National league.

"Whether he's starting every day or he's coming off of the bench, he does the same exact thing; you pretty much see the same guy every day ... and that's not easy to do so it's a credit to him," Desmond said. "He's got all of the ability, he's just in a situation where he's got to wait his turn.

"We've all got to wait our turn in this game and his time will come just like everybody else's does. Hopefully, he'll be blessed enough to snatch that opportunity out from somebody else's feet and be able to hold onto it for the rest of his career."

For now, Lombardozzi is grateful be living out a dream he often had when he visited Camden Yards as a kid.

"It's been very exciting. I came up right as everything was coming together (for the Nationals)," he said. "Last year was a blast and coming into this year we had high expectations. Obviously, we haven't played as well as we want to, but to be in this situation, the spot where we are, it could be a lot worse."

And as Lombardozzi's return to Camden Yards showed, there are times when it couldn't be much better.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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