It was an unseasonably warm April night, the Nats were in first place and Stephen Strasburg was throwing 98 mph heat. And almost no one showed up at Nationals Park.
The crowd was announced as 16,245, but there were far fewer in attendance Monday night. Those who didn't use their tickets missed a Strasburg win on a night he was upstaged by rookie second baseman Steve Lombardozzi. The fill-in for starter Danny Espinosa went 4-for-5, including the go-ahead two-run double in the sixth inning as the Nats (8-3) maintained their hold on first place in the National League East with a 6-3 victory over the Houston Astros.
"It was awesome just to get in there and play a game," said Lombardozzi, who got a Gatorade shower afterward from teammate Jayson Werth. "I won't forget this night."
The 23-year-old Lombardozzi, a switch hitter, got all of his hits left-handed and to all fields. In the first inning, he ripped a liner up the middle. In the third, he laid down a perfect bunt, which losing pitcher Kyle Weiland (0-2) threw wide of first base, allowing Ian Desmond to score from second for the Nats' first run. In the fifth, Lombardozzi singled to right.
His least impressive hit was nonetheless the most timely. Lombardozzi's well-placed bloop down the left-field line came with two outs and the bases loaded, scoring Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina to give the Nats a 4-2 lead. Four pitches later, Lombardozzi chased home Desmond as Ryan Zimmerman broke out of a slump with a two-run single to center field.
"I got down 0-2. I just tried to stay short," Lombardozzi said. "I get on second, and I was just looking over at [Desmond] and [third-base coach Bo Porter] laughing. I was lucky."
Lombardozzi, son of the former major leaguer by the same name, has been a quick study, progressing rapidly after turning pro in 2008. At each of his five minor league stops, Lombardozzi hit at least .283, and he earned a late call-up to the Nationals in September, hitting .194 in 31 at-bats.
Strasburg (2-0) cruised through five innings, allowing three harmless singles. But in the sixth, Houston used three singles and a walk to score twice. Strasburg nearly escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam as he induced a pop fly to medium center from cleanup hitter Carlos Lee. Fearing the arm of Ankiel, Houston speedster Jordan Schafer held third as Ankiel rifled home a perfect throw to catcher Wilson Ramos.
Strasburg followed with a strikeout of Travis Buck. But Chris Johnson rifled a two-run single to right-center to tie it 2-2 before getting Jason Castro on a liner to Desmond at short.
In the bottom half of the inning with two outs, Bernadina pinch hit for Strasburg, ending his night. He walked to extend the inning, allowing Lombardozzi to deliver the clutch hit.
"It was huge," Strasburg said of the four-run rally. "Obviously Lombo had a great night, so it was fun to watch."
Ramos blasted his first home run of the season, a solo shot to right center in the fourth inning.
Henry Rodriguez pitched the ninth for his second save.