- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

VIERA, Fla. — Adam LaRoche’s left foot hurts. A year ago, it was his left shoulder. Those two aches pretty much define his Washington Nationals career — if you can call 43 games a career. More than anything, though, they explain why he “feels like I’ve been running in quicksand since I’ve been in D.C.” Few things will give a ballplayer That Sinking Feeling quite like one injury piled atop another.

Now, of course, it’s even worse. Now if he wants to run in quicksand, he needs a pinch runner. That’s why he’s spending the next several days with the Nationals’ minor-league club — getting some at-bats, jogging down to first base and then letting a teammate take it from there. In what remains of spring training, he simply has to find a way to get healthy, to be the slick-fielding, power-hitting first baseman the Nationals envisioned when they signed him as a free agent last January. Let’s face it, it’s going to be hard for the Nats to go where they want to go if he isn’t contributing his usual 25 homers, 85 RBI and great glove work.

“It’s been crazy — since Day 1 here, really, because my shoulder thing happened so early in the spring last year,” LaRoche said Sunday. “And now I’ve got a little sprained foot. It’s obviously part of a plan that’s a lot bigger than what I had in mind.”

“The shoulder thing,” a torn labrum, ended his 2011 season in late May. He tried to play through it — and his numbers (.172 batting, .258 slugging) suffered accordingly — but it soon was obvious he needed surgery. So he spent the rest of the year cheering the exploits of his replacement, Michael Morse, who became a bona fide star.

You might think that would just add to LaRoche’s despair. But no, he said, it made his absence “a little easier.” Why? Because “it’s not like we had a gaping hole at first base. Mikey did a phenomenal job, and it really launched his career. He’s got confidence now. He knows he’s a great hitter and a great ballplayer, and he’s going to be a huge part of this lineup this year.”

It’s this big-picture outlook that has enabled LaRoche, whose durability had never before been an issue, to deal with the interminable waiting, with the tear-your-hair-out part of the rehab process. Good thing, too, because when you throw in the Nationals’ mating dance with Prince Fielder, who ended up with Detroit, it really has been the Year from Hell for the guy.

“I know when I’m healthy what I’m capable of doing,” he said. “I don’t have to worry that I’m going to lose performance and not be able to do what I’ve done before. It’s more of a patience-type thing, especially right now with this foot deal. The last thing I want to do is have it linger. So if that means I have to miss a few more games, I can live with that. I just want to get back to normal, feel like I’m 21 years old again instead of feeling like I’m 50.”

He also knows what he might be missing if another injury carries over into the season. This Nationals team, after all, isn’t like its predecessors. The starting rotation has never been deeper now that Stephen Strasburg is back from Tommy John surgery and Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson have been added to the mix. The everyday lineup, meanwhile, should have considerably more pop with Morse back in left field, Ryan Zimmerman unlikely to miss 61 games again, Jayson Werth showing signs of reawakening and LaRoche reclaiming the first base spot. Those four, along with Danny Espinosa, would give the Nats five potential 25-homer men. It’s a whole new world.

“We’re no longer down in the gutter of the NL East,” LaRoche said. “There’s a little more pep around here knowing that, hey, we’re a really good team. We’ve still gotta go out there and do it, of course, but just going in with that kind of confidence can win you ballgames.

So Adam LaRoche will take some swings with the minor leaguers this week and try to get his left foot ready for opening day. If, as he said, the Nationals are “no longer down in the gutter,” then it’s definitely time for him to climb out of the quicksand.