- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2012

For so long, the Washington Nationals have looked at the middle part of their lineup and wondered what might be.

What might be possible if Ryan Zimmerman was healthy or hitting like himself. If Michael Morse’s 31-homer bat wasn’t stuck in the training room for the season’s first two months. If Adam LaRoche got a chance to produce between those two with a fully healthy shoulder.

They got a glimpse, at least for one night, of the answer.

In a 5-3 victory at Nationals Park over the bumbling New York Mets, led by a monster night from LaRoche, the middle of the order went 5-for-9, drove in every run and finally colored up the middle of a scorecard the way they were expected to.

“This is kind of what we were talking about in spring training that we’re capable of,” LaRoche said, his 2-for-3 four-RBI night that began with a three-run homer in the first inning snapping an 0-for-13 stretch.

But their win Wednesday, and their 12th series victory of the season, hinged on him.

As Zimmerman has worked to find his footing at the plate, battling a sore shoulder and a disabled-list stint, and Morse has watched helplessly from the bench for most of the year, joined for the last four weeks by Jayson Werth, LaRoche was one of the only constants.

Until a dry spell hit. And any groove LaRoche found early in the year to buck his trend of starting slow seemed to waste away. He went 6-for-42 in the final two weeks of May (with four doubles and a homer) and recently began taking uncharacteristic early batting practice.

Feeling as though he’d begun “selling out” on pitches, LaRoche snapped himself out of that mindset Wednesday night and told himself not to guess when he stood in against Jeremy Hefner. In the dugout, with Bryce Harper on second and Ryan Zimmerman on first, manager Davey Johnson turned to bench coach Randy Knorr and mentioned what a good time this might be for LaRoche to rediscover his form.

“You know, he’s been quiet for a long time,” Johnson told Knorr. “He’s going to start getting hot.”

Then Hefner delivered his first-pitch curveball — an inside pitch that was hanging chest-high — and LaRoche connected. “Boom,” as Johnson put it.

It was a three-run lead the Nationals would build off of, using another solid start from Edwin Jackson to guide their way and tacking on insurance runs in the fifth and seventh innings on a RBI single by Morse and a sacrifice fly by LaRoche. It didn’t matter that Jackson, who gave up two earned runs, walked four in seven innings and cost himself a run with an errant pickoff throw. The pitching staff didn’t have to be perfect on a night when the offense was ready to give them a margin for error.

“Those guys put together some great AB’s,” Jackson said, the proud owner of his second victory as a National after a cruel eight-start string of often undeserved no-decisions or losses. “To go out in a game where we scored three early, come back and have four walks — a couple of them costly — and those guys continue to pick me up is a great feeling. It’s just an example of what this team is capable of doing.”

Morse returned from the disabled list Saturday. He went 0-for-9 in his first two games but hit two doubles Tuesday night. On Wednesday, the hits were singles, but there were two more of them and patience to work a walk in the seventh inning.

Even if he was hitless, what the middle of the order can do hinges on his name being on that lineup card.

“It’s nice having Mikey back in the lineup, regardless,” LaRoche said. “It totally changes that pitchers’ meeting to start a series. Now you’ve got one more big bat they’ve got to spend some time talking about and figure out a way to get him out. And it helps other guys around him. The fact that I’m hitting in front of him now, I’m probably going to see some better pitches, because they know what’s coming up.”

“It’s a whole new ballgame,” Johnson said. “Michael Morse is warming up and there’s not going to be much let-up in that middle of the lineup. The first two guys are going to get on and then the thunder’s coming. I’ve been waiting on it.”

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