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LaRoche gets well-earned praise

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LaRoche gets well-earned praise

The first standing ovation came as Adam LaRoche stood on second base, his bases-clearing double having just given the Nationals a comfortable lead over the Pirates they would not relinquish, the scoreboard congratulating the veteran first baseman on recording his 1,000th career hit.

The second standing ovation came moments later, after the bottom of the seventh ended and LaRoche began walking back toward the Nationals' dugout to swap out his batting helmet for his cap and glove. Realizing all this applause was directed solely at him, the 32-year-old quickly doffed that cap to the gathering of 25,942.

That's as much of a public display of emotion as you're ever likely to see out of LaRoche. Rest assured, he was beaming inside during that moment, the highlight of the Nationals' 7-4 victory.

"It was really special, to say the least," he said. "Obviously going through what I did last year and not being able to be a big part of it, and now to come back and have the fans behind me the way they are ... it was perfect."

Stop for a moment and think about how unlikely a scene this would have been only a few months ago, when Nationals fans' lasting image of LaRoche was either his .172 batting average or his left arm in a sling following season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum.

Even after making a full recovery, LaRoche still spent much of the winter listening to chatter about the Nationals making a play for free agent Prince Fielder, a move that would have resulted in him being kicked to the curb despite his 8 million salary.

LaRoche, a baseball lifer whose father and brother played in the big leagues, said all the right things and insisted he wasn't offended by all the Fielder talk. But he did admit he entered this season feeling like he had something to prove. Not to the Nationals or to their fans. But to himself.

"I don't look at what's going on, on the outside and feel like I've got to come here and prove the salary, or prove missing a year," he said. "But as a competitor, I wanted to prove to myself that I could come back from this surgery and do what I know I'm capable of doing. So to come out and do it is nice reassurance."

This is beyond reassurance, though. A consistent, steady hitter throughout his nine-year career, LaRoche has never stormed out of the gates like this. Following Wednesday night's 3-for-4, four-RBI performance, he now ranks seventh in the NL in batting average (.339), ninth in home runs (seven), third in RBI (29), fifth in on-base percentage (.429) and sixth in OPS (1.024).

More importantly, he's consistently produced big hits in meaningful situations for a Nationals team missing Michael Morse and Jayson Werth and still waiting for Ryan Zimmerman to catch fire.

"He's been indispensable," manager Davey Johnson said. "We're missing the guys in the lineup. Even Zim's been struggling. And he's been one constant from Day 1. Drove in a lot of big runs. Just a big player."

LaRoche wasn't the only contributor to this victory. Ian Desmond and Xavier Nady also homered, the latter doing it for the 100th time in his career. Gio Gonzalez struck out a season-high 10 batters over seven strong innings. And Henry Rodriguez overcame his demons and faced the minimum in the ninth inning to earn the save.

But this was a night to recognize LaRoche and what he's meant to the Nationals through the first six weeks of this season. Obviously, it's still early, but if they held an MVP vote today, LaRoche would probably show up on the ballot. And he certainly deserves consideration for his first All-Star berth.

"I've never been mentioned in any All-Star ballots, considering my typical first halves (he was a career .229 hitter in April and May before this season)," he said. "It would be neat. It would be a true honor."

Whether LaRoche is recognized by the rest of the baseball world or not, his teammates and coaches know very well what he's doing right now.

"He's been mighty big," Johnson said.

"Mr. Clutch," Gonzalez added.

LaRoche, in his typical, laid-back, country-boy manner, shrugs it all off. He's never been one to seek the spotlight or the admiration of fans.

Nor is one to say I told you so to anyone who was ready to dump him over the winter.

"I don't think that's his personality," Desmond said. "I think he understands the game. He's been around the game his whole life, literally. I think he came back, and if anything, he wanted to fulfill his contract and not necessarily repay the organization, but show the organization that he's going to fulfill his contract and play well and make it worth their money."

As the season nears the quarter-pole, the Nationals are more than getting their money's worth out of LaRoche.

Eight million dollars for an MVP candidate? Not a bad price by today's standards.

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Nationals sign former Orioles All-Star catcher Matt Wieters

Nationals sign former Orioles All-Star catcher Matt Wieters

The Washington Nationals have signed former Orioles All-Star catcher Matt Wieters to a one-year deal with a player option for a second year, according to multiple reports. 

Wieters spent the first eight years in the Majors with the Baltimore Orioles, being named to the AL All-Star team four times and winning two gold glove awards. Last season the switch-hitting catcher posted a .243 average with 17 homers and 66 RBI.  

The Nationals have been in the market for catchers all offseason after Wilson Ramos left for Tampa Bay in free agency. The team traded for former Padres catcher Derek Norris, whose role is now in question. The Nationals still have Jose Lobaton on the roster as a strong defensive backup catcher who has a proven rapport with many of the pitchers in the Nationals rotation. Wieters had been linked to the Nationals all offseason because of the team's need a the position and because of the Nationals close relationship with Wieters' agent Scott Boras. 

The only significant time that Wieters has missed due to injury in his career came in 2014-15 when he had Tommy John surgury. Prior to that surgury, however, Wieters had played in at least 130 games for four straight seasons and became a large part of the Orioles' identity. 

The 30-year-old backstop will give the Nationals lineup more depth and power. Wieters had three consecutive 20-homer seasons from 2011-13 and since 2009 when his career began, he ranks fifth among catchers in all of baseball in home runs with 117. 

Related: Nationals 2017 promotional schedule includes snow globes and fedoras

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Nationals 2017 promotional giveaways include snow globes and fedoras

Nationals 2017 promotional giveaways include snow globes and fedoras

The Washington Nationals recently released the dates of their promotional days and giveaways this season, and there are some real gems in this schedule.

Among the standard bobblehead giveaways — Daniel Murphy on April 14, Trea Turner on May 12 and Tanner Roark on June 9 — and the highly recommended Pups in the Park days — April 29, May 13, June 10, June 25, September 7 and September 30 — pick the right game and you could get a snow globe, an American flag shirt or even a fedora. Seriously.

On May 24’s game against the Mariners, the first 25,000 fans will get a Max Scherzer snow globe, which has the potential to be the coolest knickknack in your house. Or on June 14 against the Braves — oddly not closer to the Fourth of July — Budweiser is behind the first 15,000 21-and-up fans getting an American flag tank top.

But truly the most unique item on this list is the Nationals-themed fedora, which will go to the first 25,000 fans at the Brewers’ July 26 matchup. How the Nats landed on this promotional item remains a mystery, but if you like hats beyond a traditional baseball cap, this is the game to attend.

Other cool or oddball promotions include the Nats Magic 8-Ball game April 3, the Chewbacca Koozie day May 27, Bryce Harper action figure day August 29 and Oktoberfest beer stein day Sept. 29.

Here's the complete list of the team's promotional days and giveaways

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