NEW YORK - Adam LaRoche’s 2013 struggles have been well-documented.
Struggles when it comes to his offensive performance. Struggles when it comes to keeping weight on his frame.
The good news for both LaRoche and the Nationals is that on the eve of the 2014 season, the 34-year-old first baseman feels good. He feels good at the plate after a strong spring training. He feels good health-wise. And he feels ready to be a big part of what many people feel will be a strong offensive ball club.
Traditionally a slow starter in the early stages of the season, LaRoche goes into opening day pretty pleased with his timing at the plate and how his swing feels. He hit .283 in 46 Grapefruit League at-bats this spring, tied for the team lead with three home runs and collected five extra-base hits.
“I’ve never left camp feeling like everything is there, everything is ready,” LaRoche said the other day. “I don’t know many guys that have. I’ve left camp before where it’s been like, ‘Man, I’ve got a long ways to go.’ So it’s been nice just to have some timing this spring. It’s still getting there. But I feel like I’m in a position where I can do some damage now, which is nice.”
LaRoche credits a big part of that to the number of at-bats he got during minor league games this spring. When teams head on road trips, they often bring mostly younger players and reserves with them, leaving most veterans back at the organization’s spring training facility, where they can run through drills and work out.
Some players opt to head over to the minor league side and get in on game action there, where they can get as many at-bats against live pitching as they’d like. Veteran position players can lead off every inning, making sure that they get in plenty of work at the plate. And LaRoche says that played a factor in helping him get comfortable this spring.
“That’s the key going down there is you’re not sitting for 20, 30, 45 minutes in between at-bats,” LaRoche said. “You literally can work on something and you’re back up again in five or 10 minutes and still have that feel. So that’s why I really like going down there. I don’t remember the last time I got a hit down there, which is funny. Bad luck or something. But squared a few balls up, and again, just got to see a ton of pitches.”
During his down 2013 season, in which he hit .237 with a .735 OPS (both career-lows if you throw out his injury-plagued 2011 campaign), LaRoche had trouble keeping weight on his frame and says he got down to around 190 lbs., a weight that he hadn’t played at since high school. The medication he was taking to combat his attention deficit disorder (ADD) sapped his appetite, leaving him searching for ways to pack on the pounds.
Entering 2014, LaRoche feels he has a better grasp on how to keep weight on during the long, grueling season, and doesn’t expect that to be a problem again this year.
“We’ve changed a couple of things,” LaRoche said. “The biggest thing for me is just forcing food down. I’ve just got to keep packing it in there. A couple little things with the lifting, changed it up a little bit, and the medication, changed it up a little bit. And again, when it gets 100 (degrees) out, I don’t know that I’ll take BP every single day. There may be certain days where I need to stay in and hit in the cage. So I do feel good about that, and I definitely feel a lot stronger than I did last year coming in. So now the key is just keeping it on.”
Manager Matt Williams said LaRoche might end up hitting seventh in the Nats’ batting order a decent amount, which will be somewhat of a new spot for the veteran first baseman. In his three years as a National, LaRoche has started just one game in the seven-hole, but he says he doesn’t mind that spot.
The key for LaRoche entering this season is that he goes in strong and feeling like he’s got his swing where he wants it.
“I’ve been here before, where it’s been kinda a survival mode at the plate, and that’s a miserable place to be,” LaRoche said. “Overall, I feel good. Body feels good and I love this team.”