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Steve Lombardozzi enduring ups and downs in pursuit of dream

Nashville Sounds’ infielder Steve Lombardozzi has traveled a winding path throughout his baseball career.

Steve Lombardozzi has pretty much done it all in his 11 years in professional baseball.

Drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 19th round of the 2008 draft, he started out playing for their Rookie League team at the age of 19, and quickly ascended to the big club in 2011 by the age of 22.

Primarily a second baseman and shortstop – with occasional work at third base – Lombardozzi also saw time in the outfield once he reached the majors.

Lombardozzi hit just .194 with an OPS of 445 in his 13 games with the Nationals, but he was able to stick with them for two more years before he began a journey. His stops included Baltimore, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Syracuse.

On Oct. 26, 2015, the Chicago White Sox signed Lombardozzi to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training; they released him on March 31, 2016, just before Opening Day.

Undeterred by the setback, Lombardozzi signed with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in the Atlantic League, an  independent club.

“It was actually one of the best things that could have happened to me,” he said. “I got released out of spring training, so I went and played with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, which is about an hour commute from where I lived at that time.

“Number one, I got a chance to play every day and work on things I needed to work on. And [I] also started really finding the joy in the game again and the love and the reason why I play this game in the first place. I was there about a month-and-a-half, and it was a great experience for me.

“Through the ups-and-downs, you know, there’s a lot of things you can’t control in this game, so at times it had put a toll on me and it was refreshing – I was able to get back to playing like when I was a little kid.”

Lombardozzi’s performance – he had a slashline of .367/.401/. 428 for the Blue Crabs – earned him a second stint with the Nationals and later time with the Miami Marlins.

And that’s what keeps the nearly 30-year-old pushing forward now.

“Just that,” he said. “The passion. I love to compete. And also to get back to the big leagues and try to stay there – to try to compete at the highest level, as well.”

On Jan. 8, 2018, Lombardozzi signed a minor league contract with the Oakland A’s and he was assigned to the Triple-A Nashville Sounds.

Once in the Music City, he learned yet another position: first base. He has played 65 games there going into Thursday night.

“I’ve had a [first-baseman’s] glove for a while and gotten work over there over the last three or four years but maybe just played a couple of games over there, but … earlier in the year I told [Sounds Manager Fran Riordan] that I did have a first-baseman’s glove in case he needed me to go over there at any point,” Lombardozzi said. “The opportunity has come about and it’s worked out good.”

It did take a bit of a different approach, Lombardozzi said.

“When the ball is hit [I have to go] to the base versus trying to go towards the ball,” he said. “Everywhere else you play, you’re moving towards the ball. If it’s not near me, my reaction needs to be towards the base, but overall it’s been a pretty easy transition for me.”

The footwork around the first base sack also took some adjustment time.

“A little bit at first – once you get to the bag and knowing how to move your feet around, but after about a week or so I kind of got comfortable,” Lombardozzi said. “There were a few times at first when I was reaching [for a throw] and trying to feel for [the base] with my foot, but I’ve gotten pretty comfortable.”

In Nashville, he even got to pitch an inning.

“I did. I threw my first professional inning,” Lombardozzi said with a smile. “I just had fun with it. The game was out of hand, obviously, so I just went out there and had fun. I gave up one run, but I was able to get out of there and also somehow was able to strike a guy out, so that was pretty cool. I just had fun with it.”

Now, the only position Lombardozzi has not played is catcher. It is something he does not plan to do.

“That’s a whole other monster,” he said with a laugh. “I give catchers all the credit in the world. Those guys are tough. I leave that up to somebody else unless it’s a last resort thing.”

So, he does not want to try being a catcher. But his versatility in the field is matched only by his adaptability at the plate, as the 6’0”, 195-pound Lombardozzi is a switch hitter.

It was something he embraced fairly early in life at the suggestion of his father, Steve Lombardozzi, who played in the major leagues from 1985-1990 for the Minnesota Twins and the Houston Astros.

“I want to say I was 10 or 11 [when I started switch-hitting].” Lombardozzi said. “My dad asked if it was something I would want to try to do. He obviously played and kind of knew the benefits of it. So at a young age I said I wanted to try it.

“He told me it’s going to be a lot of work, especially at first, because I was weak from the left side, but I started doing it and stuck with it, and probably by the time – once I got into pro ball I finally felt like I was strenghtwise and comfortable from both sides of the plate.”

Lombardozzi said being a switch hitter is more work than one might imagine.

“You’ve got to do double the amount of work trying to keep both sides locked in,” he said. “If I go through a stretch where I’m hitting a lot just from the left side I have to make sure I’m still getting my work from the right side and stay ready.”

No matter which batter’s box Lombardozzi stands in, he has a definite approach to his plate appearances.

“The situation will dictate, and we’ll look at reports on pitchers before a game and see what his tendencies are or how that team has been pitching me in the days before,” he said. “I’ll either look for a zone; middle in, middle away, or I might even look pitch-wise: fastball or off speed in certain zones. Before a game, I always have an approach I’m going to go with to start the game.”

Lombardozzi said he does not have one specific goal in mind to return to the major leagues.

“I’m just trying to work on all parts of my game,” he said. “I mean, it’s a day-by-day thing; it’s a grind. I’m trying to work on different parts of defense, offense, and consistency. But consistency is the biggest thing.”

As the season nears its end, Lombardozzi hopes that consistency will lead to another opportunity in the big leagues with the A’s in September. If not, he will embark on yet another leg of his baseball journey.

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