Ted Leavengood: LaRoche a very substantial bird in the hand

For the four games against the Marlins, Adam LaRoche was 7-for-15 with three home runs and seven RBIs, an amazing offensive display. It has always been said of LaRoche that he is a strong second-half player, but no one could have understood just what others were talking about until this past month. He is hitting .457 for the last two weeks with seven home runs, .337 for the past four.

Most fans were content with the first-half numbers that LaRoche put up. He was the mainstay of the Washington offense, along with Ian Desmond. So it is downright scary to think he could be better in these last two months. But he is certainly on a hot streak now, one that has been occasioned by long, deep home runs that are leaving the yard like runaway balloons. Could he keep this up until October? Is that what they mean by “strong second-half player?”

Many of the most recent home runs have been of the Ruthian variety. His longest home runs hit recently recall Washington sluggers of yore. In 2005, a former Senators fan told me about another left-handed first baseman who once played here, Mike Epstein. The Californian hit 30 home runs for the Senators in 1969 and many of them landed deep in the right-field seats at RFK Stadium. Epstein was a dead pull-hitter like LaRoche.

The fan told me one of Epstein’s home runs struck a seat in the first rows of the upper deck so hard it broke the wooden slats in the seat back and left them in splinters. I don’t know if RFK even had wooden seats in 1969, but I like to picture several of the deepest balls LaRoche has hit in the past week splintering seats where they land.

In his first six seasons as a regular player, 2005-2010, LaRoche was the picture of consistency, dependable for a batting average above .270 with 60-plus extra-base hits. Generally, 25 or so of those long knocks left the park. This year he is on pace to hit 37 home runs. It would be easily his career year, but not out of character with his breakout season of 2006. That year, he bombed 32 long flies and 38 doubles hitting behind Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones in Atlanta. We are seeing LaRoche hitting at a level like he last achieved at age 26.

Washington’s young players have never been in a pennant fight before. LaRoche’s veteran presence as well as his bat could be key in the coming weeks. If his bat can show the way for Washington’s younger players, his importance to the Nationals grows exponentially.

LaRoche went to the playoffs in his first two seasons with the Atlanta Braves, 2004-2005. He and Jayson Werth are the only two regulars who have been there before. That is one reason that getting Werth healthy at this juncture in the season is so important. His leadership skills -- so evident with Bryce Harper earlier in the season -- and LaRoche’s are going to have to light the path for the rest of team.

Several days ago, MASNsports.com’s Dan Kolko speculated about LaRoche’s future with the team. Every Washington fan has heard the conventional wisdom that the Nats will let LaRoche walk at the end of this season and slide Michael Morse to first base. Others are enthused about Tyler Moore. The speculation is that Rizzo will go after a free-agent center fielder to go with Harper and Werth, which would leave Morse at first and no place to play LaRoche.

Maybe that scenario is a winner, but LaRoche looks not only like money in the bank right now, but he looks like a bird in the hand, one of the surest things the Nationals have moving forward. It is easy to project any number of Nationals players as filling the heart of the batting order. But no player currently on the Nationals’ roster, including both Ryan Zimmerman and Werth, have produced with the bat as long and as consistently as LaRoche, And that is nothing to dismiss so quickly.

One thing that Kolko did not say is that the Nationals have two young center fielders in their organization who look very impressive. Eury Perez has hit .409 since his promotion to Triple-A Syracuse. Brian Goodwin, a 2011 first-round draft pick, was jumped to Harrisburg, where the 21-year old is proving he can handle not only Double-A ball at a young age but the leadoff spot as well. He is hitting .300 for the season with a .416 OBP. Signing a free-agent center fielder for 2013 may not have the urgency it once possessed.

Where this historic season is headed, none of us can know. But the Washington Nationals’ record would not be nearly as compelling without LaRoche playing first base. We can only hope his second-half surge has plenty of steam left, that he can continue to take the pressure off Zimmerman, Morse and the other young Nationals. If that happens, then picking up LaRoche’s option for 2013 seems like smart money indeed. Breaking up a winning combination should never be done hastily.

Home cooking is always best and a bird in the hand is always better than two in the bush.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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