The Washington Times - September 23, 2012, 09:03AM

Adam LaRoche probably wasn’t aware of it, but he awoke Sunday morning once again among the National League’s top five in home runs (32) and RBI (98), continuing a bounce-back season that has surprised no one in the Nationals’ clubhouse.

“Health is the biggest thing for him and for everyone,” said Ryan Zimmerman. “When he’s healthy and gets his at-bats and gets to play a full season, this is what he does. This is who he’s been his whole career when he’s healthy.”

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A cursory glance at LaRoche’s numbingly consistent career stats backs up Zimmerman’s assessment. Dating back to 2005, you know you can count on LaRoche for about 30 doubles, about 25 homers, about 85 RBI and a batting average around .275.

That’s why last year was so stunning for the first baseman, as a torn labrum that eventually required season-ending surgery limited him to a .172 average, three homers and 15 RBI in 43 games. After missing significant time for the first time in his big-league career, LaRoche admitted there was some doubt in his mind about how well he’d recover this year.

“A little bit,” he said Saturday. “Even in spring training, when you go out there and first time hitting for a while, first time seeing live [pitching]. It had been missing five months last year so it had been a while. It took a little while from the start of the season to realize, OK, I’m back to pretty close to 100 percent, which is night and day from where I was last year.”

Judging from his career averages, LaRoche – at age 32, coming off shoulder surgery – is even better than 100 percent. His 32nd homer, which capped the scoring in Saturday’s 10-4 rout of the Brewers, tied LaRoche’s career high set in 2006 with the Braves. He’s two runs batted in away from matching his career high of 100 established in 2010 with the Diamondbacks. By the end of the season, he could well set new career benchmarks in hits and walks as well.

With the kind of numbers he’s posting while batting in the heart of the order for a playoff team, there’s a good chance LaRoche will collect MVP votes for the first time in his career. He probably won’t garner enough to win that award, but his impact on the Nationals has been obvious even as he downplays his role in the team’s success.

“I’m not one to brag on myself so it’s hard for me to say a whole lot about it,” he said. “But it’s been a blast this year with these guys and surrounded by the bats I am in the lineup, hitting in the middle of this order. There’s guys in front of me and behind me that are obviously a huge part in the pitches I’ve gotten. And the runs I’ve driven in are those guys setting the table for us. So, total team effort.”