Feb 14, 2014, 1:48 PM EDT
VIERA, Fla. — Jose Lobaton sat at his hastily constructed locker inside Space Coast Stadium, his No. 59 jersey not yet hung, his nameplate thrown together in the wake of Thursday’s trade with the Rays.
The 29-year-old catcher, though, looked perfectly at home in his new surroundings, aided in large part by the nearby presence of fellow Venezuelan Wilson Ramos, the fact Tampa Bay was overloaded with catchers in Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan and the fact the Nationals had been pursuing him throughout the winter.
“They said they wanted it for two months, they were trying to get me, because they think that I can play here,” Lobaton said. “So I’m happy for that. It makes me feel good to know that I can play here. I know with Molina over there and Hanigan, when I saw they signed both guys, it was like: ‘Wow, something’s going to happen.’ But right now I’m here and I’m happy, ready to work hard to do the best for the team.”
Acquired along with two prospects for right-hander Nate Karns, Lobaton immediately becomes the Nationals’ No. 2 catcher behind Ramos, an experienced big leaguer who appeared in 100 games for the Rays last season.
He has known Ramos for about seven years; the two have been teammates before in Venezuela. That prior history helped smooth Lobaton’s arrival in Viera and will help him learn the Nationals’ pitching staff this spring.
“He’s got experience in the big leagues, he speaks the language, he knows the pitchers,” Lobaton said. “That’s what I want. That’s good. We’re friends. I’ve known him for a long time. We can talk for a long time about the staff, how to handle the pitchers. I feel great to have a voice in here. Hopefully we can be good partners.”
General manager Mike Rizzo cited Lobaton’s defensive skills — particularly his ability to frame pitches — as a major reason for the trade. Lobaton, though, became better-known last season for his skills at the plate.
After hitting a collective .202 with a .579 OPS in his first three big-league seasons, Lobaton hit .249 with a .714 OPS while catching 100 games for the Rays. And that doesn’t include his memorable October, during which he clubbed a walk-off homer against Red Sox closer Koji Uehara during the ALDS.
The mere mention of that Game 3 home run still brings a smile to Lobaton, who admits he watched the replay 20 times that night.
“It’s like: ‘Wow, I’m the hero,'” he said. “You want to be the hero all the time, but you can’t do it every day. When that happened, you’ve got to enjoy it. It was the best moment of my life.”
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