- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2014

SAN FRANCISCOAdam LaRoche sat quietly in front of an empty locker Tuesday night, tapping at his phone long after most of the visiting clubhouse at AT&T Park had cleared out.

Wearing black pants and a plain white dress shirt, he sometimes stood to shake hands with a teammate or hug a team staffer. The season, and possibly his tenure with the Washington Nationals, had ended. And LaRoche was already thinking about his plans for the winter.

“A lot of hunting. A lot of hunting,” he said. “That’s where my focus shifts right now: to the whitetail.”

LaRoche will spend his winter chasing deer with country music stars Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, among others, then prepare for spring training and his 12th major league season. The question is not whether LaRoche will continue playing baseball after turning 35 next month, but whether he returns to the Nationals for a fifth season.

LaRoche and the team have a $15 million mutual option for the 2015 season, and the first baseman has repeatedly said he would love to be back. But with Anthony Rendon’s superb season at third base and Ryan Zimmerman’s long-standing shoulder problems, the Nationals could look to move Zimmerman to first base, leaving no place for LaRoche.

“We’ll see what direction they want to go,” LaRoche said. “If it is [my last season here], it was a blast and it’s a time that I’ll never forget. I don’t regret any of it. But hopefully not. Hopefully I’ll be back.”

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When LaRoche first signed with Washington as a free agent in 2011, the Nationals were coming off a 69-93 season and a last-place finish in the National League East. They had never finished above .500, and they had played as many seasons at RFK Stadium as they had at Nationals Park. “It was not a good situation, to say the least,” LaRoche said.

In the four years since, the Nationals have won two division titles and twice finished with the best record in the NL. The fanbase has grown, and LaRoche feels fortunate to have been a part of it.

“It’s been unbelievable,” he said at a press conference before Game 2 of the National League Division Series. “My first year, I don’t ever remember seeing any National jerseys or hats walking down the street. I live all the way out in McLean, and there [are now] Nats flags and gear and bumper stickers everywhere. … It has been a special place to watch that transformation.”

LaRoche missed most of his first season with a left shoulder injury but has since become one of the pillars of the team. He won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award in 2012, hitting .271 that year with 33 homers and 100 RBI, and put together what he said was an “okay year” this season. LaRoche hit .259 with 26 home runs and 92 RBI but went 1 for 18 (.055) in the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants.

“I always feel like I should drive in more runs,” he said. “I feel like I left a lot of guys out there, but I don’t know.”

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said LaRoche’s true value has been away from the field, as a leader in the clubhouse. LaRoche is a mentor to several younger players, particularly reserve first baseman Tyler Moore, and a sounding board for rookies and veterans alike.

Adam is the most consummate professional player that we’ve ever had here in Washington,” Rizzo told 106.7 The Fan on Thursday afternoon. “He’s an outstanding teammate, a very, very underrated leader in the clubhouse before we got him. Knowing what I know about Adam LaRoche now, he’s a terrific guy that quietly leads, not only by example but vocally, and is a great guy to have on the club. … He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever been around.”

Ultimately, however, Rizzo and the Nationals will have to make a business decision. LaRoche is getting old and his offensive production often comes in spurts. Keeping him at first base would require Zimmerman and his ailing throwing shoulder to play third or the outfield, potentially bumping center fielder Denard Span out of the lineup.

LaRoche understands all of this. As he looks ahead to an offseason of hunting, he understands that he has likely played his last year in Washington. He understands that his last at-bat in Nationals red was likely a routine fly ball to center field in San Francisco. He understands that the highlights of his time here will soon be only memories.

“I had a bunch of them,” LaRoche said with a smile. “A bunch of them off the field here, just because it’s such a great group of guys, guys that I’ll stay in touch with probably the rest of my life. A bunch of them. There’s just moments on top of moments that were pretty special.”

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