PITTSBURGH -- It got lost in the shuffle amid Henry Rodriguez's sliders in the dirt and Rod Barajas' walk-off homer into the bleachers, but the most significant development of last night's loss to the Pirates from the Nationals' perspective might well have been Adam LaRoche's performance.
Back in the lineup after missing four games with a sore right oblique muscle, LaRoche looked like he never skipped a beat. He went 2-for-3 with a single, a walk and a towering, two-run homer in the top of the ninth off Joel Hanrahan that would have served as the game-winner if not for Rodriguez's blown save in the bottom of the inning.
LaRoche was understandably down in the dumps because of the way the game ended, but he was encouraged by his individual performance and the fact he was able to pick up right where he left off before getting hurt.
"It felt nice that I could get up there and take full swings with my side the way it's been feeling," he said.
LaRoche did have his right side packed in ice post-game, and he did have to take some swings off a tee in-game to keep himself loose, but the oblique muscle certainly didn't prevent him from doing anything on the field.
And that's a good thing for the Nationals, because right now they desperately need the veteran first baseman to keep himself in the lineup. With Jayson Werth out for the next three months with a broken wrist, with Michael Morse still sidelined at least another month with his lat strain and with Danny Espinosa struggling mightily at the plate, LaRoche has been one of the few constants in manager Davey Johnson's lineup.
LaRoche's .323 batting average ranks 10th in the NL. His .406 on-base percentage ranks eighth. His .954 OPS ranks ninth. And, of course, his play at first base has been superb.
With Bryce Harper asserting himself and Ryan Zimmerman now healthy again after a two-week stint on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, LaRoche gives the Nationals a formidable trio of big boppers. Which they certainly need, given the other holes in their lineup.
Espinosa continues to look lost at the plate; after striking out three times last night, he now has 37 for the season (second in the majors only to Adam Dunn).
"I'm concerned about him," Johnson said after the game. "But I have a lot of confidence in him. He'll be in there tomorrow."
The Nationals also continue to get zero production out of their left fielders, especially now that Harper has shifted to right field. Given yet another opportunity to assert himself last night, Roger Bernadina went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. He also got twisted around trying to catch a first-inning drive to the warning track.
With left-hander Erik Bedard pitching for the Pirates tonight, look for Xavier Nady to get the nod in left field. But don't look for general manager Mike Rizzo to scour the rest of the league in search of another body who could take over that position, not with Morse's return anticipated.
"Like we said before, with injuries come opportunities," Rizzo said before yesterday's game. "We're going to give a handful of guys an opportunity to perform out there and see if they can help themselves in their career path and help the ballclub win some games. We feel comfortable with the guys we have in-house. We're going to give them opportunities to take the job, and for somebody to take the job and run with it."
All the more reason to appreciate just how valuable LaRoche has been. The veteran got plenty of negative attention last season when he hit just .172 and had to be shut down in May with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. But he's living up to the billing right now, and the Nationals are grateful to have him.
"People underestimate him because of what they saw last year when he tried to play hurt," Zimmerman said. "It's not easy to play through things like that. He gave it a shot. Unfortunately he couldn't do it, and so that's what a lot of people think of him as a player. Adam's a good hitter. He's a very underrated player."