Adam LaRoche, the Nationals‘ $24 million first baseman, isn’t sitting out Monday’s series opener against the Marlins in Miami because of his creaky back (which has improved) or because the opposing starter is a left-handed pitcher (he is, in fact, a capable hitter against lefties). LaRoche is, however, the first to feel the ripple effect of the Nationals’ deep and capable, yet inactive, bench.
On Monday morning, Manager Davey Johnson sent LaRoche a text message telling him that he wanted to rest him, primarily to give second-year player Tyler Moore some at-bats. LaRoche responded, asking Johnson to wait before making a definitive decision so he could state his case. The two talked for a few minutes in the visiting manager’s office. Johnson confronted one of his biggest challenges of this season: finding enough playing time for everyone on the team.
“He knows my position: If I can play at all, I want to play, period,” LaRoche said. “Regardless of who’s pitching or what I’ve been doing at the plate. The other side of that is, he’s my boss. I’m going to state my point and let him make the final decision and respect that. I certainly understand that T-Mo needs at-bats, and we’ve got to get guys in there. That’s the only unfortunate thing about having bench guys that should be playing every day on most clubs.”
Hitless in his eight at-bats so far, Moore will start against left-handed starter Wade LeBlanc. LaRoche, hitting .147, will more than likely be back in the lineup the following day. Johnson explained that the day off would also help LaRoche, who missed two games in Cincinnati with tightness in his back. But “it was more about giving Tyler Moore some at-bats and get him going,” Johnson said. “It was more of a team thing. … It’s about getting 25 guys going, not just one or two.”
By chance, Danny Espinosa is still nursing a swollen right wrist suffered Sunday when he was hit by a pitch, so backup infielder Steve Lombardozzi also received a starting nod. Entering Monday’s game, the Nationals’ bench had played little this season. Last season, the reserves helped keep the team afloat through long stretches of injuries and made Washington arguably the best pinch-hitting team in the majors. So far this season, Chad Tracy, Roger Bernadina, Lombardozzi and Moore have a combined 31 at-bats and, as a team, Washington is only 2 for 13 in pinch-hit at-bats.
It’s understandable that the regulars would dominate the lineup because it’s still early in the season. But 13 games in, Johnson decided Monday against the Marlins was a good chance for a break. It also likely doesn’t hurt that the Marlins have the worst record in baseball.
Moore is “an everyday player for most teams, and Davey’s in a little tricky spot,” LaRoche said. “He’s got to give him some at-bats, so we’re in that stage.”
LaRoche understands his manager’s difficult position: tell a veteran what he doesn’t want to hear at the expense of a younger, inactive and less experienced player that could use the playing time.
“We’ve talked about it plenty in the past, and we talked about it some more this morning,” he said. “This is no time to be selfish. The guy needs to get some at-bats. It’s tough being that young and coming off the bench, getting one at-bat every other night. As much as I want to play, I understand where the team is coming from.”
Concerning his back, LaRoche has actually noticed some improvement since missing two games in Cincinnati. ‘I feel great,” he said. “It actually feels better than it did in the past.”
And even though he is hitting .147, LaRoche has still hit two home runs and driven in four runs and feels better at the plate than his numbers would indicate.
“I’ve been way, way worse as far as my timing up there,” he said. “I’m a little passive still, still taking some pitches that I could do some damage with. But other than that, [Sunday] I felt like I hit three balls pretty good. Just bad placement. I’ve been there before. But no, it doesn’t feel too far off.”