The Washington Times - May 9, 2012, 12:37AM

PITTSBURGH — The Washington Nationals entered the ninth inning Tuesday night down a run with the heart of their order coming up. That term “heart of their order” has taken on so many different incarnations for the Nationals this season as they’ve coped with the loss of cleanup hitter Michael Morse, then Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche and now Jayson Werth.

But Tuesday night, the “heart” was at least partly what the Nationals had planned. Zimmerman in the No. 3 hole, LaRoche behind him. And as if neither had missed a beat, Zimmerman singled and LaRoche cranked the 1,000th home run in Nationals history into the right center field seats at PNC Park.


“Adam’s done pretty much that all year long,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, otherwise sullen about his team’s 5-4 loss to the Pirates. “He’s been outstanding.”

LaRoche’s reputation as a slow starter has been thrown out the window this season as the Nationals’ first baseman finally gets an opportunity to show that the man he was last year — the one trying to play with a torn labrum — is not him.

After more than seven months of rehab, an offseason spent trying to ignore the rumors about the Nationals’ pursuit of Prince Fielder, a spring bone bruise in his foot that limited his at-bats and playing time, and oblique soreness cost him the Nationals’ previous four games, LaRoche just continues to prove he is certainly not that guy.

“People underestimate him because of what they saw last year when he tried to play hurt,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not easy to play through things like that. He gave it a shot. Unfortunately he couldn’t do it, and so that’s what a lot of people think of him as a player. Adam’s a good hitter. He’s a very underrated player.”

In 2011, LaRoche played in 43 games. He hit .172 with a .288 on-base percentage and .258 slugging percentage. When he finally succumbed to surgery in June his career numbers had taken a misleading dive.

This year, LaRoche has been arguably one of the best first baseman in the National League. His usually superb defense aside, LaRoche has the third-highest OPS (on-base plus slugging) percentage in the NL among first basemen. His .954 ranks behind only Chicago’s Bryan Lahair and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto with Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman close behind.

LaRoche is hitting .323 with five homers, leading the team with 19 RBI, slugging .548 and getting on-base at a .406 clip. And the Nationals have relied so heavily on him this season that while his home run Tuesday was nice — and would have been nicer had the Nationals been able to keep the lead in the bottom of the inning — the fact that he was able to play was just as encouraging.

“It felt nice that I could get up there and take full swings with my side the way it’s been feeling,” LaRoche said. “In that regard, it would have been nice for that lead to hold up.”

LaRoche said he did have to go into the tunnel and take a few swings off a tee every few inning on Tuesday in order to try and keep his sore right oblique loose. But otherwise, the healthy returns of he and Zimmerman were reason enough for the Nationals to come away at least partly satisfied.