Nats first baseman Adam LaRoche ready for a rebound

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Nothing seemed to go right for Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche in 2013.

After exploding in May, a rare strong beginning to a season for the notorious late starter, LaRoche faltered. For three months he struggled to find the form that led to a brilliant 2012. His weight decreased almost to 190 pounds, what he weighed as a teenager and into his early 20s. That sapped some of his power. So did bone chips in his left elbow that didn’t became noticeable until September. LaRoche needed offseason surgery to correct that problem

“I just think it’s nice to have a fresh start, individually for a lot of us and as a team,” LaRoche said. “We totally underachieved last year. No excuse there. Offensively terrible for the first three months or whatever it was. You try to come back and pinpoint that and what we can do to correct it and get off to a better start.”

LaRoche’s OPS dropped from .853 in 2012 to .735. His slugging percentage went from .510 in a 33-homer season to .403 with 20 homers. For whatever reason, he wasn’t the same player. That was easier to accept in 2011 when a serious left shoulder injury made it physically impossible for LaRoche to perform up to his standards. He made it only to May that season before being shut down, 43 games in all.

But this was different. LaRoche still doesn’t think the elbow was a problem until very late in the year. He felt healthy. And a change in his attention deficit disorder (ADD) medication mid summer – he began using one with a different release time - allowed him to regain some of the weight he’d lost. His appetite early in the year just wasn’t there.

After bottoming out during an awful July (.511 OPS), LaRoche began to rebound. Even with the elbow issues in September he had an .811 OPS. that month. It was just too late to make up for those early struggles. His post-All Star break batting average was still a paltry .217.

LaRoche admits his elbow still gets sore “from time to time” after the October surgery. The ensuing rehabilitation process cost LaRoche two months of offseason work. He’s put on about 15 pounds in recent weeks, but is still five or so shy of his goal.

At age 34, age starts to become a factor. But that decline is different for every player. Why are the Nats confident that LaRoche just had a rough year and will rebound and not that he’s on a downward slope of his career?   

“I just think he’s too good a player,” Washington manager Matt Williams said. “The question is, you look at Adam, you go, generally, he hasn’t started the season well. Last year, it was the opposite. He started the season well early on. Sometimes, there are years like that. There’s no rhyme or reason for it. I think he’s healthy and I think he feels good. He’ll be a big part of it, because we need him.”

LaRoche is one of the few players on the Nats with experience playing for Williams when both crossed paths in Arizona in 2010. Williams’ plan for LaRoche in the spring might include at-bats in minor league games where he leads off an inning six straight times and gets a boatload of quality at-bats. The hope is that will help him get off to a good start this year. But LaRoche doesn’t necessarily need to return to his 25-homer level – he’s done that five times in his career – to help Washington’s offense rebound, according to Williams. 

“I look for him to hit us a boatload of doubles. I’m not concerned about him hitting the ball over the fence,” Williams said. “Drive runs in. I’ve stood at first base and watched him hit 30 over the fence and drive in 100 on a team that was a big strikeout team in Arizona. I’ve seen it happen. I know what he needs to do to do that. He needs to hit the ball back through the middle and the other way. He’ll work on that.”

 

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