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Unlikely hero Jose Lobaton uses bat (and shirt) to send message

WASHINGTON -- Back in August, a brown cardboard box filled with custom-made T-shirts arrived in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse.

Backup catcher Jose Lobaton eagerly walked over to the package and sliced it open, fully within his rights. After all, the shirts were his idea. He designed them. He ordered them. He paid for them.

He lifted a tee out of the box and unfolded it. He held it high up in front of his face and smiled with satisfaction. Dark heather gray, the shirt was dappled with red, blue and yellow ink, the same colors as the flag of his home country, Venezuela. But just as important as the motherland was the mantra.

Recta carne.

Spanish for "fastball meat," it was a saying that arose organically, as is wont to happen over the course of the eight-month petri dish that is a major league baseball season. An English-speaking teammate muttered it in the dugout one time. Without thinking, Lobaton parroted it, only in his native tongue. Next thing you know, everyone was saying it. Not long after that, the brown cardboard box arrived. That first August shipment contained 25 shirts, one for everyone on the roster. The tees were such a big hit that in early September, Lobaton had to order another 20 or so to accommodate everyone on the expanded 40-man roster.

Partly, recta carne is about the message. About being on the attack and devouring cheese. But it's also about team bonding. About chemistry and breaking up the monotony of the grind. It's the kind of stuff that, more often than not, falls under the jurisdiction of the guys on the periphery. The crazy situational reliever. The well-traveled pinch-hit specialist. Or, in Lobaton's case, the back-up catcher.

Besides wardrobing his Nationals teammates, Lobaton disrobes them. Kind of. Whenever the Nationals hit a home run, Lobaton greets the masher at the top of the dugout step and removes his helmet. It's a sort of valet service that allows the hero to high-five his teammates in the dugout without having to trudge back through the line and return his helmet to the rack. Instead, Lobaton does it for him. Except for when he can't.

On Sunday, Lobaton stepped to the plate in the bottom of the fourth, with two on and two out and his team trailing 2-0 against Dodgers lefty Rich Hill. Earlier, in his first at-bat against Hill, Lobaton had killed a promising Nats rally. Actually, killed is an understatement. More like slaughtered it. With the bases loaded and one out in the second, Lobaton hit a weak comebacker to Hill, who gloved it and threw home to start an inning-ending double play that sucked the ever-loving life right out of Nationals Park. Easy as 1-2-3.

"I was guessing," Lobaton said later of that first at-bat. Even though Hill throws his curveball nearly half the time (48 percent this year, most of any pitcher with at least 100 innings), Lobaton went up there guessing fastball. He might not have been wearing recta carne -- he saves that for batting practice -- but he was definitely thinking it. Naturally, Hill threw a first-pitch hook, a looping 75 mph lollipop that got Lobaton off-balance and ended in first-degree rallycide.

It wasn't an entirely unpredictable result. After all, few hurlers have been as good as Hill this year. Plus, Lobaton doesn't hit lefties. In fact, he barely even plays against lefties. With All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos, a right-handed hitter, getting most of the action against southpaws (and in general), Lobaton had just 15 regular-season at-bats against lefties. In those at-bats, he'd managed just one hit.

Throw in a balky right ankle that has made it even more difficult lately for Lobaton to hit right-handed, and it was a shock that he was even in the lineup Sunday. But with Ramos done for the year with a torn ACL -- an almost certain knockout punch for the Nats, according to most -- it was either Lobaton or right-handed-hitting rookie Pedro Severino, a seldom-used September call-up. On Friday in Game 1, facing lefty Clayton Kershaw, skipper Dusty Baker chose Severino. Even though Severino went 1-for-3 with a double in the opener, Baker surprisingly went with Lobaton for Game 2. Call it a hunch.

If Baker was guessing, Lobaton wasn't. Not in the fourth inning, anyway. Hill started him off with an 88 mph fastball, up and away. Lobaton took it for ball one. Next came another heater. Again it registered 88, again up and away, again no swing. Only this time, it was called a strike. The third pitch was a hanging curve. Top of the zone, right over the plate.

Curva carne.

At 73 miles an hour, it was just barely fast enough to get a speeding ticket on I-95. Lobaton stayed back, waiting and waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more. Then he let loose a thunderous swing that would seem to contradict the old saying about the pitcher supplying the power.

"I was just thinking, 'Hit it hard,'" Lobaton said. And he did. The ball left his bat almost 40 percent faster than it arrived -- 100.3 mph, to be exact. Nearly 400 feet later, it came to rest over the left-field wall, somehow managing to cut through the blustery winds that had been swatting balls down all afternoon.

"I didn't think anybody could hit a home run out of left field today, the way that wind was blowing everything back," Baker said after the game. "I mean, he had to hit it a ton."

That Lobaton connected at all was a minor miracle. It was just his second hit against a lefty all year (oddly enough, the other one was also a homer against the Dodgers back in July). On top of that, it was just the fifth homer that Hill had allowed all year and only the second time he'd been taken deep on a curve. It was the first time he'd served up a gopher ball with runners on base.

When Lobaton crossed home plate and returned to the dugout, his belly full from feasting on curva carne, Bryce Harper was there to greet him with valet helmet service, a sign of just how big Lobaton's blow was. Usually, if Lobaton is unavailable for lid-lifting duty, third baseman Anthony Rendon is his backup. But this wasn't just any homer. This was a game changer. A series changer. Maybe even a season changer. Hence the Harper helmet heist.

After the game, Lobaton stood in front of his locker, hurriedly packing his bag for the trip out west, where the series continues Monday. Had the Nationals lost Sunday, it probably would've been a somber flight, an aerial death row march for a team on the brink of yet another early postseason exit. Instead, thanks in large part to Lobaton, it should be a festive flight filled with drinks, laughter and the prospect of doing something that the Washington Nationals have never done before -- win a playoff series.

With the Nationals' PR staff waiting nearby to whisk him out of the clubhouse and down the hall to his postgame news conference, Lobaton stared down at his unzipped duffel bag, the navy one with red trim and a big curly W on it. Laying on the top was his recta carne shirt. Red, yellow and blue. Same colors as the bracelets he wears on his wrist. Same colors as the basket-weave headband he slipped over his brow before heading off to talk to the media. Same colors as his native flag.

He gazed at the T-shirt for a moment, trying to figure out if it had anything to do with Sunday's events. Ultimately, he decided that it did.

"It was so that people get scared and throw a curveball," he said. "And then I can hit a homer."

With that, he walked out of the clubhouse and down the hall, the unlikeliest of heroes.