WASHINGTON — — The first time Kevin Kelly saw Steve Lombardozzi, he wondered whether the boy could make the throw from shortstop to first base. Lombardozzi was a freshman trying to make the Atholton varsity team. Kelly, the coach, had heard that Lombardozzi, the son of a major leaguer, could play, but he stood 5 feet 2, 110 pounds. "He was a little guy," Kelly said.
Lombardozzi made the team, but Kelly played him at double-play depth at all times, just so he could make the throw. In the coming years, Lombardozzi played such flawless defense that scouts came to Atholton to watch him. They would tell Kelly that Lombardozzi did not possess the size or the arm strength to play professionally. "You better not sell him short," Kelly would reply.
Now, less than 10 years after Lombardozzi arrived for his first high school tryout, he has become a major leaguer. The local kid who never stopped working suddenly has become a crucial player for the first-place Washington Nationals. Lombardozzi arrived at spring training this season hoping to make the 25-man roster. Fifty games into the season, he has become their regular leadoff hitter, an on-base machine who, coaches say, is immune to mistakes.
During his September call-up last year, the Nationals played Lombardozzi at third base even though he had not played there before. This year, the Nationals have turned Lombardozzi, at least temporarily, from a second baseman into a left fielder to give him more playing time.
"I don't ever have to watch him, because he's always in the right spot," said Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, who managed Lombardozzi in the minor leagues. "You look, and he's standing there. Just throw him out there, he'll figure it out. That's the one thing I always say about him — he'll figure it out."
On Wednesday in the clubhouse at Marlins Park, manager Davey Johnson approached Lombardozzi and told him, "You're back out in the pasture." Lombardozzi had started at second base the previous day, but that night he would play left field, a position he had no earthly idea he would man when he showed up for spring training.
Johnson considered Lombardozzi an everyday second baseman, but in Danny Espinosa he already had his starter. Johnson wanted to give Lombardozzi a better chance to find consistent playing time, and so he tried Lombardozzi in left field.
The Nationals began the year with Ian Desmond as their leadoff hitter, but Johnson knew Desmond did not fit the leadoff mold. Even as Desmond started strong, tying for the team lead with eight home runs, his on-base percentage hovered around .300. The Nationals still had the same problem from the previous two years, when their .312 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot ranked in the bottom third of the league.
At the end of last week, Johnson moved Desmond to fifth in the lineup and finally turned to Lombardozzi on a full-time basis. This year, in 116 plate appearances, Lombardozzi is hitting .320 with seven doubles and a .381 on-base percentage, tied with Adam LaRoche for the highest mark on the team.
"He's great," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think he doesn't let anything affect his approach and his style of play. He knows who he is and what kind of player he is. And he definitely knows what he needs to do to be successful at this level. And he sticks with it, no matter what the situation is or who says what to him."
This week, one Nationals official said if he could pick any Nationals hitter to bat with a runner on third base and less than two outs, he would pick Lombardozzi. Coaches rave about his "approach," the way he attacks pitchers.
"I think it varies," Lombardozzi said. "I'm watching the pitcher when I'm in the dugout. Before the games I'm watching tape on him, seeing what his tendencies are. I try and go up there and stick to a game plan."
When Knorr first managed Lombardozzi at Double-A Harrisburg, he was struck by Lombardozzi's grasp of his own strengths and weaknesses. Knorr had seen many players ruin their swing by trying to hit home runs, but Lombardozzi always had a plan, trying to spray line drives and work counts.
"He's one of the earliest players I've known that understands what type of player he is, his capabilities," Knorr said. "He makes the best out of them. For his age, to identify what he is, is pretty amazing. Most guys are still searching."
Before games, Lombardozzi is always pacing somewhere, to the field or the batting cage, a glove or bat in his hand, sticking to his rigorous routine. This offseason, he gained 15 pounds of muscle lifting weights with Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, driving from Atholton to Nationals Park six days a week. He is listed at 6 feet, 195 pounds.
At Atholton, Kelly watched the extra drills sessions Lombardozzi grinded through after practice. Every day for four years, Kelly said, Lombardozzi stayed on the field for an extra hour or two with his father, Steve Lombardozzi Sr., who played for six seasons with the Minnesota Twins and won a World Series ring.
His father would hit Lombardozzi every variety of ground ball — backhanded stops, barehanded plays, one-hoppers, slow rollers. He took extra practice. He worked on his jumps off bases and improved his speed with endless sprints.
"If there is something to be said for hard work, he's going to find a way to get it done," Kelly said. "As good of a player as he was, he's probably not the most talented guy I ever coached. But nobody is going to outwork him.
"Don't misunderstand me, he's a very good player. He's probably the best fielder I ever had. But other guys had more raw ability or raw talent. But they didn't have his work ethic. That's the neat part of this."
He never stopped working. In left field, Lombardozzi's arm is vulnerable to runners taking an extra base. ("I'm working on that," he said.) But he has not botched a single ball hit to him, and "I don't think he's going to miss one," said Nationals third base coach Bo Porter, who instructs outfielders.
"You know that he's going to do everything in his power to be prepared to play," Porter said. "I never had any concerns about him. He's been great. Some people just have a feel for the game. He understands situations."
Before this season, Lombardozzi dropped by Atholton High to chat with his old coach, who retired last year. He told Kelly if he ever needed any tickets, he would take care of him. Kelly beamed with pride, and with the satisfaction that there is something to be said for hard work.