- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2012

VIERA, Fla. — Last spring, Adam LaRoche knew his left shoulder wasn’t right.

Each throw brought pain for the Washington Nationals first baseman. But swings didn’t sting and LaRoche, in the first season of a two-year, $16 million contract, figured rehabilitation would fix the problem.

LaRoche couldn’t see the tear grow larger in his labrum. Finally, with the power behind 20 or more home runs for six consecutive seasons gone, LaRoche relented to season-ending surgery last June.

“It just felt weak,” LaRoche said last month at the Nationals’ spring home. “It felt like I had to cheat even in batting practice to get the barrel to the ball.”

The labrum, lip-like cartilage where the ball of the humerus fits under the shoulder blade, was the culprit. Michael Morse endured the surgery. So did Ryan Zimmerman and Jesus Flores.

But LaRoche’s surgically repaired shoulder is, in many ways, the Nationals’ biggest offseason offensive upgrade. While general manager Mike Rizzo swapped four prospects for left-hander Gio Gonzalez, gave right-hander Edwin Jackson $10 million and added bargain-basement right-hander Brad Lidge to the bullpen, minor-league contracts and bench tweaks sufficed to improve the offense. Last season, the group ranked 11th or worse among National League teams in 10 major offensive categories.

Yes, Zimmerman also is healthy after injury limited the third baseman to 101 games in 2011. But as the Nationals market “Natitude” and talk of contention swirled around Space Coast Stadium, it’s difficult to forget this is largely the same offense that led the league in strikeouts, ranked 15th of 16 teams in hits, 13th in walks and 12th in runs.

The 32-year-old LaRoche’s pre-surgery three home runs and 15 RBI along with a .172 average didn’t help.

How LaRoche responds after surgery that usually takes two years to fully heal is one question. So is if Morse can repeat his 31 home run season. Or if Werth, the seven-year, $126 million man, can improve on his .232 average and 20 home runs. And when will 19-year-old prodigy Bryce Harper and his prodigious power be summoned from Triple-A Syracuse.

While LaRoche battled a bone bruise in his left foot this spring, his shoulder feels strong. And he realizes now how completely the labrum tear sapped his power and wrecked his swing in 2011.

The more the labrum tore, the more LaRoche had to compensate to catch up to even the slowest pitches. Bad habits started. Instead of the normal split-second to react to each pitch, LaRoche had to guess if the pitcher would throw a fastball or curve the instant it left his hand.

“It’s a bad feeling when you can’t see the pitching coming out of the hand,” LaRoche said. “It doesn’t work like that. I’m not that good to play like that.”

The week following a three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles in late May led LaRoche to admit the problem’s severity.

“During that time I was seeing it as good as I can and I could not get the bat there,” LaRoche said. “That’s when I knew. … Something’s not right. I know my body well enough to know that I should be killing some balls right now and I wasn’t.”

These days LaRoche does a variety of exercises, using everything from bands to weights, to strengthen the shoulder. The last soreness and “acting up” in the joint disappeared after working with his father, Dave, a former big league pitcher, in January.

Looking back, LaRoche is glad he tried to play through the injury. After all, the swings didn’t hurt. If they did, he would’ve stopped.

“I feel like it was worth a shot,” LaRoche said. “You don’t go running into surgery. … I tried it and it got worse and worse.”

Now LaRoche hopes for a season that gets better and better.