Timing is everything.
Think about it. If Jose Lobaton was traded at this time last year, before the 2013 season, Rays fans would have hardly batted an eye. Now, it's a different story.
To many in 2012, Lobaton was a no-name backup catcher to the great pitch-framing extraordinaire, Jose Molina. In all honesty, Lobaton didn't do many things well. In his first season with the Rays as a full-time backup, his .222 average, combined with measly 16 percent success-rate (8-for-42) of throwing out base-stealers, didn't exactly put him on the map. But at a position with so little depth on the Rays, he remained in his role heading into the 2013 season.
At the age of 28, Lobaton didn't ooze with the potential of a young prospect, but there was some hope that he could improve enough to eventually become the starting catcher when Molina moved on to greener pastures. He could hit from both sides of the plate, and learning from a veteran like Molina encouraged fans to believe Lobaton may develop similar fielding ability.
Lobaton made some overall improvements in 2013 and the playing time became more of an even split between Molina and Lobaton (99 and 96 games, respectively) at the catcher position. Lobaton took advantage of the increased playing time by improving his offensive numbers (.249 AVG, 320 OBP, seven HR and 32 RBI) as well as his fielding ability with only two passed balls and improvements in his pitch framing. It seemed as if Lobaton was on his way to becoming the primary catcher, but with the Rays re-signing Molina and the acquisition of Ryan Hanigan, it made sense for the Rays to give Lobaton a chance to play somewhere else.
Lobaton's departure probably couldn't come at a better time for the sake of how he'll be remembered by Rays fans. The 2013 season provided opportunities for Lobaton to make some magic and he did. In an three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays in mid-August, Lobaton came through in the clutch with his first walk-off hit (a triple) as well as his first walk-off HR two days later.
And while these moments were all well and good, there is nothing Lobaton can do that will change the one moment he'll be remembered for by Rays fans forever.
His showdown with Koji Uehara in Game 3 of the 2013 ALDS wasn't supposed to go the way it did. Uehara's 2013 campaign included a 1.09 ERA, a 30.1 scoreless inning streak and retired a club record 37 consecutive batters. He has just come off a Game 2 save where he made quick work of the Rays by throwing all of his 11 pitches for strikes.
The at-bat started off with a splitter for a strike. Many fans probably conceded the bottom of the ninth and hoped the Rays would pull out a victory in extras. But Lobaton had different plans.
Connecting on another splitter low in the zone, Lobaton sent the ball over the fence into the Ray tank and kept the Rays season alive. Cue mass hysteria.
As Rays radio broadcaster Andy Freed so excellently described the Rays first walk-off HR in the playoffs, it was "a shocker of all shockers."
If this video doesn't give you chills as a Rays fan, I don't know what will.
If the Rays had gone on to come back from an 0-2 deficit and win the series, Lobaton's HR would have gone into the pantheon of Rays' magic moments: a season-saving walk-off home run off a virtually unhittable pitcher, and it came against the team's most hated rival. Even though the Rays were eliminated in Game 4, Lobaton's home run against Uehara cemented his legacy with the Rays.
In my mind, he'll be up there with Dan Johnson. Forever a fan favorite, and forever associated with one of the franchise's top moments.
Lobaton may not mean much to other teams in the future, but he'll always be the "Ice Cream Man" to us.
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