CHICAGO — The Washington Nationals weren’t expecting to have Adam LaRoche as their cleanup hitter. LaRoche was supposed to hit fifth behind the mashing potential of Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse with Jayson Werth hitting behind him in the No. 6 spot.
But Morse is hurt, rehabbing a right lat strain with Double-A Harrisburg Thursday (he was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts), and LaRoche and Werth were bumped up in the lineup as a result.
On Opening Day, it was hard not to see the void Morse’s absence left.
After seven innings on Thursday, LaRoche and Werth were a combined 0-for-6, a combined 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and had each left five runners on base — including both with the bases loaded in the third. Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Ryan Zimmerman were getting on, but LaRoche and Werth were struggling to bring them in.
“Man, I had some chances to do some damage early that would have helped out,” LaRoche said later, lamenting his 0-for-3 with three strikeouts (two swinging) to start the game.
So it was with the game’s most pivotal situation — two men on in the eighth inning, the Nationals trailing 1-0 — that LaRoche and Werth fought off the urge to connect and allowed Kerry Wood to lose the strike zone.
With one out, Ian Desmond singled. Danny Espinosa struck out and Ryan Zimmerman walked.
What happened from there? Let’s let them tell it.
“Well, I got behind again,” LaRoche said. “I felt like the whole night 0-2, 1-2 just not seeing it real good, trying to do what I could to put the ball in play. Got some pitches to hit, fouled them off. I think it was 2-2 and I held off on two balls.
“It’s tough. It’s one of those things where you can easily go out — which I think I did in probably my second and third at-bat — and try to do too much and not staying within myself. I’ve fought that before. Came back against Kerry, saw the ball a little better and drew a walk.”
So as he trotted down to first, the crowd showering Wood with chants of “Kerry, Kerry” and “Let’s go Cubs,” Werth stepped in.
“He jumped ahead 0-2,” Werth said. “And I knew he’d just walked Rochy in a similar situation, Zim too, but that really didn’t help me there because I was 0-2.
“The 2-2 pitch was the one that was at my face, if I recall. The last pitch was a ball (all the way) out of his hand. I don’t know what type of success I’ve had off him in the past, I know it hasn’t been that good. (As an aside, Werth was actually 0-for-7 with four strikeouts and no walks vs. Wood in his career before Thursday.)
He’s tough. He’s had a good career and he’s a good setup guy so any time you can draw a walk, especially with the bases loaded, it’s better than nothing,
“I had a plan and just kind of backfired since I got down 0-2. But I got the pitch I was looking for 0-1 and I was just a little too far away. I hit it off the end. Sometimes you can have a plan and it doesn’t workout so well. Fortunately in the end it got the job done.”
The Nationals had very little luck making contact on Thursday, and when they did, the wind was just too strong. Ryan Zimmerman hit two surefire home runs — including one to left field that may well have left the stadium — that were caught as harmless fly outs. As Ian Desmond put it, it was pretty “pointless” to try and hit the ball in the air.
So in that instance, a walk was as good as anything else they could do. It tied the game and set up Chad Tracy (double) and Desmond (RBI-single) to win it in the ninth.