Adam LaRoche's first season in Washington was a disaster. As the tear in the labrum of his left shoulder slowly grew, it derailed the Nationals' first baseman so much so that at this time last year he was a shell of his former self. His season would last 43 games.
The offseason brought with it rehab from labrum surgery and rumors about his team in hot pursuit of slugger Prince Fielder. LaRoche deflected the noise. He hunted. He strengthened his shoulder. He slowly worked his way to full health in a spring training that brought with it other ailments.
And then he took off.
That LaRoche has been the team's best hitter all season was a point of fact put on full display Wednesday night in Washington's 7-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park. A night he called "perfect," as he reached a milestone with his 1,000th career hit, smoked a three-run double for the final margin of victory and was one of three Nationals to homer, his at the start of a back-to-back sequence with Xavier Nady.
"He's making that move look real good," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, referring to the team's failed courtship of Fielder. "That lack of move."
LaRoche, who is hitting .339 with the eighth-best on-base plus slugging percentage in the major leagues (1.024), insists he didn't think anything of the speculation involving the Nationals and Fielder this offseason. One of the most even-keeled players in the clubhouse, LaRoche is not one to carry a chip on his shoulder or use a grudge for motivation. But the way he played through injury in 2011 may have had some people forgetting the kind of player he's always been. It may have had him forgetting.
"You know what, to myself I did [have something to prove]," LaRoche said. "I don't look at what's going on on the outside and feel like I've got to come here and prove the salary or prove missing a year, whatever it is. But as a competitor, I wanted to prove to myself that I could come back from this surgery and do what I know I'm capable of doing."
"He's only human," Johnson said when asked if he thought the injury and the offseason lit a fire in his first baseman. "[He's probably thinking,] 'I want to show everybody: What were you thinking about, with the Prince?' We sure missed him last year."
On Wednesday, a night that Gio Gonzalez baffled the Pirates for the majority of seven innings, striking out 10, walking two and giving up three runs, LaRoche was the star. Bryce Harper hit his first career triple in the first inning, scoring on a Ryan Zimmerman groundout to help the Nats jump out to an early lead. Ian Desmond hit a solo homer in the third to increase the lead to 2-0.
But it was LaRoche who stepped in at the bottom of the seventh, a half inning after Gonzalez would surrender a two-run shot to Josh Harrison, and issued a preemptive strike. Two outs, two strikes and a 92-mph fastball gave LaRoche his seventh homer of the season. Xavier Nady, getting his first start in a week, followed it up with the 100th home run of his career.
Yet it was the first baseman's milestone that got the most play. With the bases loaded in the seventh, the Nationals leading by just a run, the first baseman then laced a bases-clearing double to the right field and the words flashed on the scoreboard in center field: "Congratulations to Adam LaRoche on his 1,000th career hit."
As he stood on second base, he thought about his first one, a single off Steve Trachsel in 2004, and some of the more memorable ones he's had in his nine-plus year career. The normally stoic LaRoche cracked a small smile as the fans gave him a standing ovation, and he tipped his cap as the inning ended and the fans showered him for a second time.
"It's pretty special," LaRoche said. "It does [mean something] to me. Now we start over and go for 2,000. It makes me really appreciate guys like [Derek Jeter]. Shoot, I feel like I've been playing 50 years to get a thousand. I'm serious. Too look at some of these guys, 3,000-plus hits is just an unbelievable career, longevity, staying healthy and going out there every year and throwing out hits on top of hits, it's pretty cool."
The ball, inscribed with 'No. 1,000', sat in his locker after the game. That one, he said, he'll probably give to his dad, Dave, who pitched for 14 years in the major leagues.
LaRoche has played for five different teams in his career. His stay in Washington could last another year or could be finished after this season. His first one was lost to a labrum that just wouldn't cooperate. His second could have him in line for an All-Star berth. Wednesday, he was happy to have helped key a win.
"He's indispensable," Johnson said. "We're missing the guys in the lineup. He's been the one constant from Day 1."
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