The Washington Nationals are only seven games into a very vernal 2012 campaign, but already there are several surprises that have fans in Natstown doing a double take. There is the fact the team sits alone on top of the NL East without the help of Michael Morse, and, by extension, a true offensive power threat. Shortstop Ian Desmond seems to have found new life in the lead-off role. He leads the team in hits (13) and is in the top three of team batting average (.406) and on-base percentage (.441). There is the shock at how godawful the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies have been this early on and shock at how much the New York Mets have actually been functioning like an average baseball team.
Then there is the bewilderment that I am writing an Adam LaRoche article this early in the season, or even writing one at all.
It is hard not to argue that the biggest surprise of the young season has been LaRoche. The guy leads the Nats in home runs (2), RBI (8), and slugging percentage (.586), and is in the team's top three of batting average (.406). He has been tip-top in the field, and he has been getting things done with the bat when it counts. Take the Nats' home opener against the Cincinnati Reds Thursday. The score is tied at nil in the fifth inning. LaRoche is up to bat with the bases loaded, two outs and one strike against him. Maybe it was his nine years of baseball experience that came into play or maybe memories of getting chewed out by his own son for a poor performance still hung with him. Whatever it was, LaRoche delivered. He smoked a two-run single up the middle off the Reds' Mat Latos to give the Nats a 2-0 lead. If it wasn't for Brad Lidge imploding in the ninth (where art thou, Drew Storen?) that would have been game and LaRoche would have been a one-man Opening Day army.
It is so odd to be singing LaRoche's praises in 2012. Honestly, no one saw it coming except maybe Mike Rizzo and LaRoche himself. After a long off season of rumors of the Nats wanting to pick up Prince Fielder and LaRoche getting over injuries and surgeries, it seemed like the team and the player would be on a collision course of some kind. It has always been known that LaRoche was not in the team's long term plans at first base, and due to various ailments, LaRoche was not living up to the two-year contract the Nats gave him in 2011.
The failure to land Fielder and the reliance on LaRoche gave fans a bit of uncomfortable cottonmouth and even though LaRoche said he understood that the game was a business and the Nats were going to do what is best for the Nats, no one truly believed he was happy about what was going on. He seemed to be a loner. A Nationals player on the team who didn't truly feel like a National. He was a loner. A ballplayer who was playing, but really had no team. What a miserable situation. No one could truly work in that environment and thrive. How could they?
What damn fools we've been. We forgot that this is David Adam LaRoche we are talking about here. This guy hunts deer with a guy who looks like Captain Caveman. He has battled to be the best he can be on the field even though he suffers from ADHD. He is a strong and devoted family man. And no matter how many shoulder injuries or labrum surgeries he goes through, nothing seems to keep him from getting back on that field. Of course we shouldn't be shocked by LaRoche's early success. The guy battles through adversity, and really, that is the type of player this young Nationals team needs, especially this year.
In 2007 I had the honor of briefly meeting LaRoche in Dunedin, FL before a Spring Training game when he was a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was polite, engaging, a class act, and he knew and understood the game. Even back then I was thinking, "Man, I would love this guy to be on my team." Five years later, the planets aligned.
LaRoche could easily have pulled a John Lannan and asked for a trade after all the offseason mess, but he didn't. Such a move really isn't in his make up. LaRoche is a baseball player, he wants to play baseball and nothing seems to stop him from that goal. While he might not put up the huge numbers fans tend to enjoy, what he does bring to the field and locker room is invaluable, and perhaps we in Washington were too quick to make judgements on what we see on the outside.
Because on the inside, under that number 25 jersey is the heart of a Washington National.