A Grand Occasion
It’s amazing to think, considering the early season success that Adam LaRoche has enjoyed, that his solo home run in the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s game was his first at home this year. The Nationals first baseman had already gone deep six times on the road in 2012 – two apiece in Los Angeles, Chicago and Pittsburgh – and was already pacing the team in most offensive categories. But he had arguably his best game of the season on Wednesday night and hit a career milestone in style in the process.
That first home run came at a crucial time, extending a 2-1 lead over the visiting Pirates. Xavier Nady followed with a home run of his own, the 100th of his career. But it was LaRoche’s landmark moment later in the game that would resonate as the biggest play in Wednesday night’s affair. After Pittsburgh again trimmed the lead to one in the top of the seventh with a two-run shot, reliever Evan Meek pitched around both Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman in the bottom of the frame, loading the bases for LaRoche with two outs. He took no time to make Meek pay for that decision, lacing the first pitch into the right-field corner to plate all three runners and break the game open for good. The NatsHD vidoeboard flashed the news, that the double marked the 1,000th career hit for the first baseman, an accolade that drew a standing ovation from the healthy midweek crowd of nearly 26,000 on hand.
On a team missing two middle of the order bats in Michael Morse and Jayson Werth, there has been a glaring need for someone to step up and fill the offensive void. LaRoche has been more than up to the task, leading the club in nearly every offensive category, including batting average (.339), on-base percentage (.429), slugging percentage (.595), home runs (7) and RBI (29), despite sitting for a four-game stretch with an oblique injury. In fact, he was the only player in the National League in the top 10 in batting, doubles (10), home runs, RBI and OPS (1.024) entering play on Thursday.
Let’s not forget about the glove, either. First base is not a position usually associated with defense – often it is only noticed when the player is saving his teammates from an error, by picking an errant throw out of the dirt. While the Reds’ Joey Votto may be well positioned as the incumbent to stake claim to his second consecutive Gold Glove at the position this year, LaRoche’s diligent work should not go without consideration. He has handled nearly everything slung, rocketed and skipped his way by the rest of the infield, a skill magnified by the close games the Nationals have become accustomed to playing.
A couple of weeks ago, we floated out the suggestion on Twitter that LaRoche needed a nickname. One user responded with “AdaMVP,” a suggestion that we thought was befitting for his work to date, as he has clearly been the team’s MVP (at least among position players). But he is making a case as a legitimate MVP contender in the National League with the type of season he has had so far, especially with what it has meant to his team. In the face of an already double-digit list of Disables List stints, one shudders to think where the club might be without LaRoche’s timely hitting. As a result, we have also used “The Rock,” which is more than just a play on words (“LaRoche” translated from French), as it is also befitting both his stalwart performance at the plate and on defense.
Meanwhile, LaRoche continues to terrorize his former team, the Pirates, having gone 7-for-12 with four walks, two doubles, three home runs and eight RBI in four games, with the fifth and final contest between the teams coming up Thursday night in D.C. The Nats can only hope he generates the same kind of production against another one of his former teams, the Atlanta Braves, for the 18 matchups between the division rivals this season. Washington and Atlanta have taken turns leapfrogging one another back and forth atop the National League East by a half-game every night since Sunday.
But that is a discussion for another day. For now, LaRoche is basking in the joy of being healthy and producing for a winning team. The Rock, AdaMVP… call him what you will; he has been huge for the Nationals in 2012.