- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2012

HOUSTON — Before the Washington Nationals staged their comeback Saturday night, before Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper stole the headlines with their awe-inducing power display, it was another night in which Adam LaRoche was carrying the team.

It was another night in which LaRoche, hitting .348 with eight homers since the All-Star break, allowed his performance to prove his worth as one of the best first basemen in the league.

His bat has become essentially irreplaceable in the Nationals’ lineup. His defense, while less quantifiable, is often impeccable — which his fellow infielders, who can thank him for keeping their error totals down with all of his acrobatics and scoops on their throws, are the first to point out.

“He’s been a constant all year long,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He got big hits when [Ryan Zimmerman] was down, when [Michael Morse] was down. He’s the guy that carried us through it, him and [Ian Desmond]. He’s the glue in the infield. He goes a lot of times unnoticed, but not by me.”

A year ago, a $10 million mutual option for 2013 on LaRoche’s contract seemed unlikely to be picked up, at least by the Nationals. LaRoche’s first season in Washington was derailed by a torn labrum and his numbers never were close to the expected production.

Plenty called for the Nationals to make an over-the-top push to sign Prince Fielder and forget LaRoche, never mind focusing on the 2013 option.

Now, exercising it seems to makes sense for both sides.

LaRoche, 32, is on pace to hit 34 home runs, drive in more than 100 runs and has saved more than eight runs above the average first baseman with his defense, according to baseball-reference.com — tops among National League players at the position.

The financial commitment wouldn’t be one for the Nationals to take lightly. A $10 million salary, which would be the most he’s ever earned in a season, would make LaRoche the third-highest-paid player on the Nationals' roster next season, behind only Jayson Werth and Zimmerman.

But LaRoche’s numbers as a first baseman this season put him in an elite class, and team officials, who view the option in a positive manner, are well aware that $10 million for an elite first baseman is a bargain.

In a comparison with six of the highest-paid first basemen in the major leagues — Joey Votto, Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira, Fielder and Albert Pujols — LaRoche would be set to make at least $9 million less than any of them in 2013.

This season, only Votto and Pujols have a higher slugging percentage than LaRoche, and Pujols only by .003 percentage points.

“He’s been incredible,” said rookie Bryce Harper, who points to LaRoche as one of the veterans who has helped his adjustment to the major leagues. “He’s done well for us all year. To have him stay hot like this and have him keep it going is huge for this team.”

Asked recently about his option, LaRoche said he had yet to truly sit down and give it a good deal of thought, but he made one point clear: leaving Washington isn’t something he’s itching to do. Being here for 2013, whether by picking up his end of the option along with the Nationals or perhaps through a restructuring that would involve an extension, is something he’s definitely open to.

A nine-year major league veteran, LaRoche has played for five different organizations and enjoyed bouncing around the country. But he and his family have found comfort in Washington. LaRoche’s 9-year-old son Drake is a constant fixture in the Nationals’ clubhouse, often in full uniform, doing whatever is asked of him.

As LaRoche was collecting himself in the clubhouse after Saturday’s game, he paused as his session with reporters was breaking up and mentioned that while the Nationals' win had indeed been thrilling, his favorite personal moment came earlier.

The best part of a night in which he’d hit two home runs, he said, was coming into the dugout and getting to hug Drake.

The LaRoche family has made itself at home in Washington and with the Nationals. The sides have not discussed next year or beyond and how long it will remain their summer home, but LaRoche has made himself one of the Nationals' most irreplaceable players this season and the option is there to keep him here for at least one more year.