- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2011

ATLANTA — The numbers are not pretty. Adam LaRoche knows that. He knows that his .202 batting average and .314 on-base percentage is not what the Washington Nationals expected when they signed him to be their first baseman this offseason.

They’re certainly not what they expected out of their cleanup hitter.

As the Nationals attempt to find their way out of a prolonged offensive slump that has seen their batting average hardly, if ever, rise above .230, LaRoche has been in the thick of those struggles.

“I think the hardest part as a hitter is not worrying about your average,” LaRoche said. “When you’re going good, you’re not looking at that. When you’re not, you know that the further you go, the harder it is to climb back up.

But LaRoche, a historically slow starter, entered the series finale with the Atlanta Braves on Thursday night hitting .280 with a .381 OBP, along with five walks and four RBI in his past 25 at-bats.

He was dropped to fifth in the lineup Thursday night, with Laynce Nix getting cleanup honors. LaRoche went 1 for 3, scoring twice and driving in a run in the Nationals’ 6-5 loss in 10 innings. Washington squandered a 5-1 seventh-inning lead in its bid to sweep the series.

“I wouldn’t say I’m stressing over it, because I’ve been there so many times in my career,” LaRoche said. “But the frustrating part is not what the average is, it’s the fact that you look back and think, ‘Man if I’d have been doing a little more, we may have won two or three extra games.’”

LaRoche has shown signs lately that he may be finding his groove. He’s walked five times in the past eight games, something that Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said is an indication that he’s “starting to get it together a little bit.” He’s also hit two doubles and driven in four runs. His hits this season may not be wholly plentiful, but he does lead the team in game-winning RBI with four.

And as bad as his numbers may look (5-for-31 with runners in scoring position, for example) the first baseman isn’t about to panic. In 2007, he was hitting .132 in the first week of May with a .245 OBP with just two doubles and three homers. He hit .297 over the next month, driving in 16 runs and working 14 walks.

The same thing happened in 2008, struggling out to a .179 average, .257 OBP and just one home run. He reeled off five homers, eight doubles, 18 RBI and 12 walks in the month that followed.

While he hasn’t been using his history as a guide, he doesn’t feel too far away — a common sentiment throughout the Nationals’ lineup.

“I don’t really draw a line and say at this date, if I’m struggling, I’m going to try something different,” LaRoche said. “I don’t feel terrible. I’ve felt a lot worse where I’ve felt lost and I feel like I need to be in the cage all day long. I don’t feel like that. I’m just a click off.”

Wednesday night, the Nationals staged a ninth-inning comeback and 11th-inning explosion that saw them score six runs in a span of three innings. For a team that was scratching for every run the first few weeks of the season, Washington has scored 14 in the past two games — as many as it scored the previous four games combined.

LaRoche’s track record is such that he could soon be watching his production rise. It would be a welcome development, whenever it happens.

“This is what we were expecting out of this team, what we’re showing signs of,” LaRoche said. “Not the consistency that we want or that we’re going to get, but the big hits and three-, four-run innings, that’s what this lineup can do.”

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