Craig Heist, wtop.com
WASHINGTON - Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche is a very quiet, unassuming man who doesn't seek out attention or the spotlight.
In fact, just by looking at him or talking to him, you wouldn't be able to tell if LaRoche is in the middle of a hot streak or in the midst of 1-for-20.
But there is one fact that cannot be denied: he has been the rock in the middle of the Nationals lineup all season and one of the main reasons the club has the best record in baseball to this point.
LaRoche only played in 43 games last season and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
In the spring, the challenge for LaRoche was not only to bring his shoulder back to 100 percent, but also to deal with a foot injury that wasn't allowing him to run the bases for an extended period. It really wasn't until the end of spring training when he finally felt like he was healthy enough to be able to play day-in and day-out.
Heading into Sunday's game, the 32-year old is hitting .268 with 23 homers and 74 RBI. Going back to July 22, LaRoche is hitting .347 with 2 doubles, 7 homers and 19 RBI in 19 games. LaRoche leads National League first basemen in homers and RBI.
"I am very happy with the way my shoulder has recovered," LaRoche said. "I was a little worried about the foot in spring training for a while but that has come and gone. But as far as staying healthy, it's been pretty good. I've had to miss a few games here and there, but overall, I can't complain."
LaRoche has been amazingly consistent throughout his career. He has hit at least 20 home runs in 7 of his 8 big league seasons. In 2010 with Arizona, he was a 25 homer, 100 RBI guy.
That is why getting back and staying healthy this year was so big for him and the ball club. LaRoche has a track record that says when he is healthy, he is one of the most dependable players in baseball. There was little doubt in his mind that would happen again if he could stay healthy.
"No question," he said. "I have felt that every year except last year, when I knew something wasn't right. Even when I have gotten off to bad starts, I've been real lucky to not panic about it or stress too much over it because I think that can make it snowball and make it even worse. I have always had the confidence that at the end of the year, the numbers will be there."
However, LaRoche has been a notoriously slow starter. With the Braves in 2004 he hit .214 in April. In 2005, he hit .206 and .200 in 2006. When he got to the Pirates in 2007, he hit .133 in April and .174 in 08.
LaRoche can't explain the slow starts, but he does acknowledge that getting advice from a former teammate has allowed him to deal with it much better.
"I remember Chipper Jones telling me years ago when I was scuffling, he said, listen, you just keep it simple," LaRoche said. "Try to produce one run per game, whether that's an RBI or scoring a run. He said that should be your goal.
"There are going to be games where that doesn't happen and there are going to be games when you produce five or six runs. But overall, try to get one run a game, play solid defense, don't take your at-bats into the field, don't take defense to the plate and he has obviously perfected that over his career, so I took that to heart."
There is no doubt pitching has been the backbone of this team throughout the season, but it is hard to imagine where this team would be had it not been for LaRoche being in that lineup on a daily basis this season.
The Nats went three months without Jayson Werth as he was recovering from a broken wrist. They lost Michael Morse for the first 50 games of the season with a lat strain. Ryan Zimmerman was down for a while with a sore shoulder and now the team is missing shortstop Ian Desmond as recovers from a strained oblique.
The one constant has been LaRoche.
"That might be the thing I am most proud of throughout this whole season," LaRoche said. "Leading up till now, when those guys were out, to be able to step in and help out and be a big part of that lineup, then you look up at the All-Star break and see our record and to know I had something to do with some of those wins and really helping out.
"When you have those two guys out, I think it's really easy for Zimm or myself or anyone else in this lineup to put more pressure on themselves and feel like they have to come through every time, and that just wasn't the case this year."
The depth on this team has been tested all season and the Nationals have always managed to find someone to pick up the slack when someone goes down.
"You can take our best player, whether it be Werth, Zimm or Mikey, whoever it is at any given time and you don't ever want it to happen, but you can DL those guys and fill their spot with someone who can produce," he said. "It's not a devastating thing around here when someone goes down."
The Nats are being tested again with Desmond being out and yet they are currently riding an eight-game winning streak heading into Sunday.
"You haven't seen any momentum shift or loss of confidence in this team when Desi got hurt," he said. "Yeah, it sucks and it's another speed bump, but let's deal with it until he gets back. We've done it with Werth, we've done that with Mikey and we did it with Zimm, so that all goes back to the depth of this team and the guys having some real good ballplayers."
While LaRoche shows very little emotion, there is one thing that brings a constant smile to his face. His 9-year-old son, Drake, is a mainstay in the Nationals clubhouse with his dad.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything," he said. "I have been very fortunate because a lot of clubs don't allow this, don't allow kids in the clubhouse after a certain time or whatever it is. He's getting to the age now and I have told him, hey, if you are going to be in here, you are going to be helping out, staying out of the way and basically being another bat boy or clubbie. So as long as he does that, I love having him around and I love being able to see him after games and during batting practice.
"I got to do that when I was growing up, when my dad was coaching. I remember going to the park with him and I always said when he gets to the age that I'll start taking him."
Drake is quiet like his dad and LaRoche says the privilege of being in the clubhouse is something his son understands, realizing that it can't be taken for granted.
"He loves it and it's nice to have this because it's my wife's threat at home," LaRoche said. "If he screws up, she will say, ‘If you don't straighten the attitude out you won't be going to the park with your dad' and that instantly gets him to straighten up. So that right there shows how much he loves it and he won't let that take it away from him."
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)
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