In the second inning of the second game of Friday’s doubleheader, Gorkys Hernandez laid down a bunt against Gio Gonzalez. The ball dribbled out in front of the mound and by the time Gonzalez grabbed it, Hernandez was two-thirds of the way to first base. Gonzalez fired a quick throw to the right of first base and behind the runner.
First baseman Adam LaRoche, as calmly as he does just about everything, stepped across the bag and backhanded the ball for an out, not knowing where it was. It didn’t stop a rally or prevent a run but it was yet another example of a spectacular defensive play by LaRoche. So even when he guesses, he produces slick fielding.
”That was blind luck there,” he said after the game. “I totally lost it behind him, I really thought it was going to hit him. I just threw my glove out where I thought it was going to be and it happened to land in it.”
Nationals Manager Davey Johnson called LaRoche the “glue of the infield.” Based on some advanced defensive metrics, LaRoche isn’t among the first baseman leaders for his more limited range. But in ways that can’t be measured, he saves teammates from errors by picking tough balls out of the dirt or making tough plays, and is a calming presence.
On Thursday, he came across first base at least twice to grab wide throws. On another bunt play on Friday, he smartly let the ball hit the ground instead of catching it so he could start a double play by throwing to third base — a last-minute decision he said he had never tried before. John Lannan, who ran to the ball to catch it, had no idea what LaRoche was planning.
“It’s obviously something you don’t work on and you don’t see very often, so a lot of things had to go right,” LaRoche said. “Fortunately, they did. I’d try it again, if that’s what you’re asking.”
With LaRoche, it’s not just the runs he saves but the runs he produces. He is the Nationals’ best power hitter, who carried the offense along with Ian Desmond when other players were injured or slumping. He is in the midst of his best season in six years. He leads all Nationals regulars with a 131 OPS+, which adjusts for player’s ballpark, and total good enough for 34th in the major leagues.
He leads all National League first basemen in home runs (21) and RBI (67). He is third among them with a .862 on-base plus slugging percentage. He has hit at least 20 home runs seven times in his nine season, and is on pace for 30 home runs and 100 RBI. After his batting average dipped in recent weeks, but not his clutch hits, LaRoche is 21 for 58 in the past 12 games, hitting five home runs and knocking in 12 runs, a .655 slugging percentage. He is now hitting .273.
“He’s got big hits when [Ryan Zimmerman] was down, [Michael] Morse was down,” Johnson said. “He’s the guy that carried us through it, him and Desmond ... He goes a lot of times unnoticed, but not by me.”