LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The pitch fluttered toward the plate, and Adam LaRoche had trouble suppressing a laugh. The ball thrown by Tim Hudson, one of LaRoche’s former teammates with the Braves and a good friend, dipped and dropped, a cross between a blooper pitch and a knuckleball.
What most fans didn’t see were the silent hand signals between LaRoche and Hudson before the at-bat with one out in the second inning. Hudson has had some fun at LaRoche’s expense in the past, and LaRoche said he motioned to the pitcher, asking him whether he was going to try to float a knuckler past him.
“He just likes having fun, apparently. ... I gave him the knuckleball signal walking up,” LaRoche said. “I didn’t think he would do it. I should have known better. He’s done it before.”
When LaRoche was an opposing batter in spring training several years ago, Hudson tried to sneak a knuckleball past him. Another time, LaRoche remembered, Hudson tried to switch balls and accidentally whizzed a pitch intended for the catcher by his head and to the backstop.
LaRoche has some experience with gimmick pitches. His father, former major league reliever Dave LaRoche, threw an Eephus pitch nicknamed “LaLob” that sailed high and then dipped toward the plate. By the time the batter could react to the pitch, it was usually past him.
“I can count on something every time I face him in spring training,” said Adam LaRoche, recounting the time Hudson winged him with the resin bag after flying out.
Hudson’s pitch was clocked at 47 mph, and fell outside for a ball.
Hudson and LaRoche weren’t the only ones amused. Catcher Matt Pagnozzi and home plate umpire Sam Holbrook were stifling laughter, too.
“It was pretty funny. ... It’s tough when the catcher and umpire are laughing, too,” LaRoche said.
LaRoche got the last laugh. On the next pitch, he singled sharply to right. But he was cut down at the plate trying to score from second base on Danny Espinosa’s single.
Third base coach Trent Jewett sent LaRoche from second with two outs, which he expected. But Heyward’s cannon of an arm from right field produced a seed that beat LaRoche to the plate by about 30 feet and forced him into a futile slide.
“I was expecting to be sent there, but not expecting to be thrown out by that much,” he said.
While LaRoche laughed about Hudson’s attempt at a knuckler, catcher Wilson Ramos passed a major test, playing all nine innings for the first time this spring. Backstop Kurt Suzuki did the same yesterday in Jupiter, but Ramos’ stint was notable because it marked the first time he’s caught an entire game in his comeback from reconstructive knee surgery last May.
“I feel good, I feel excited right now,” Ramos said after the game.
Ramos’ night included throwing a runner out trying to steal third to end the first inning.
“I feel more strong, I feel more alive behind the plate,” he said. “I feel very strong behind the plate. I’m very, very excited for this moment.”
Ramos’ next hurdle will be catching in back-to-back games. So far, Nationals manager Davey Johnson has alternated Ramos and Suzuki, in part to give them each a break and in part to protect Ramos until he was healthy.
“I’m ready for that,” Ramos said.
Ramos hasn’t felt any soreness the days after he plays.
“I get up in the morning and I don’t feel tired,” he said. “I don’t feel sore in my knee and my leg. I just feel more excited. When I wake up and don’t feel (pain) in my body, I just say, ‘Let’s go, I’m ready to play.’ ... I’m not thinking about my body, my knee.”