MIAMI - The comparisons to Adam Dunn will be there, even if the commonalities between Adam LaRoche and the former Nationals slugger begin and end with their birthdates (LaRoche is three days older) and the slight twang each one has in his voice. It's natural for anyone who replaces someone - especially when the decision that went into the process was as polarizing as the one the Nationals made after last season.
Nationals fans, many of them still miffed about the team's decision to let Dunn walk in free agency, have sought to compare the two players as similar commodities. Some have taken the team's position that Dunn's defensive weaknesses made signing him to an expensive long-term deal a risky decision, while others have pointed to the loss in power the Nationals will likely sustain in the transition from Dunn to LaRoche, counting every run Dunn drives in for his new team, the Chicago White Sox, as new evidence that the team made the wrong choice.
The two players, though, couldn't be much different. The 6-foot-7 Dunn was hard to miss in the Nationals' clubhouse, whether he was arguing college football with his teammates or tossing barbs at them from halfway across the room. LaRoche is about the easiest 6-foot-3, 205-pound player to miss in baseball, quietly folding into his locker and talking only a couple levels above a whisper.
On the field, the differences are just as stark. Everything Dunn did - home runs, strikeouts, miscues at first base - was big. You noticed it, and had a reaction to it, one way or the other. LaRoche, a career .209 hitter in March and April, slips into most seasons unnoticed, and by sometime shortly after the All-Star break, he's somehow raised his numbers to a respectable level. He's agile around the bag at first, with soft hands that make him a serviceable, if not spectacular fielder.
Most Nationals fans have their opinions, and LaRoche's game-winning homer in the 11th inning on Thursday night won't do much to change them. But it couldn't have come at a better time for a team that needed a win at the end of a trying series.
LaRoche was hitting .158 before yesterday, and was 0-for-4 in the game before the shot, having seen a couple hard-hit balls turn into outs. But he pulled a slider from Edwin Mujica to put the Nationals ahead for good.
"He's just such a pro. He doesn't get flustered," manager Jim Riggleman said. "He just kept getting good at-bats, and he connected."
The Nationals' decision to replace Dunn with LaRoche wasn't so much one player for another as it was one philosophy for another; the team was moving toward an emphasis on speed and defense, and was wary of paying for Dunn's homers knowing there was no designated hitter spot to stash him. LaRoche represented a modest alternative, a sound defensive player who would come cheaper because his power numbers weren't in Dunn's class.
LaRoche, though, has hit 99 homers in the last four seasons; he's not Dunn, but he's not a hindrance on offense either.
"The numbers speak for themselves," oufielder Jayson Werth said. "(He's a) great defender, a good guy, he's positive, he's fun to be around."
He's also not Adam Dunn. But then, he's not trying to be.
"I'm not necessarily replacing anybody," he said. "I think the Nationals signed me for me. They signed Jayson for Jayson. We didn't come over here to step outside our comfort zone and be somebody we are not. That could lead to a pretty miserable summer."