Boswell: Nationals’ Adam LaRoche struggling through his usual slow start at the plate

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post - “I feel like every at-bat right now, I feel like I’m 1-2. Before the at-bat even starts, I feel like I’ve got a strike or two on me,” said Washington first baseman Adam LaRoche, who is off to an even worse start than usual at the plate.

When Adam LaRoche is in a hitting slump, like his current horrible 0 for 26 with 13 strikeouts, he looks like a bewildered deer in the forest being hunted by that well-known bow-and-arrow outdoorsman, Adam LaRoche.

The Nats’ first baseman, like the critters that he stalks on his Outdoor Channel TV show, knows that something is very wrong, but he doesn’t know what to do. Right now, he’s just a disoriented form of baseball wildlife, caught in the crosshairs of his sport, hoping that someday soon, maybe one day this week in Atlanta against the Braves, he can start being the hunter again, not the hunted.

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Right now, pitchers are laughing at him. Maybe somewhere, a few deer in Kansas and points west are snickering, too. When you have a buck and a duck tattooed, one on each shoulder, you can’t expect universal sympathy.

They better enjoy it. LaRoche’s slumps feel like they last forever, especially to him; but they follow a career-long pattern that’s haunted him for 10 years, especially in spring when he has had eight nightmare Aprils. His little droughts last about 15 hitless at-bats in a row; the really horrendous ones, like the eyesore that continued Sunday, when he stranded five runners in a 5-2 Nats defeat to the Reds, last for about 30 at-bats. Then he usually erupts.

How does it feel to be LaRoche at the plate right now, constantly behind in counts, chasing bad pitches, batting .135 and feeling for the ball tentatively with his long graceful swing, yet not really attacking the pitch?

“Probably about as good as it looks,” he said, grimly. “I’ve been through a bunch of ’em. Last year, one of them took three weeks.”

On low pitches that fool him, he looks like a farmer using a stick to poke at a snake in a ditch bank next to his field. Don’t get too close to that thing.

“I feel like every at-bat right now, I feel like I’m 1-2. Before the at-bat even starts, I feel like I’ve got a strike or two on me,” LaRoche said. “It would be a lot less stressful to be a .270 hitter all year long instead of hitting .350 one month and .150 the next. But again, that’s me. You look at [my] inconsistencies throughout the year [yet] the overall numbers seem to be very consistent every year.”

What can LaRoche do after going 0-for-a-homestand?

“I’ve got one of two options here,” he said. “I can keep my head up, keep swinging, or pack up and head home. I’m not ready to go home yet.”

That’s good. If he’d let a slump comparable to the one he’s in now send him packing, he’d have gone back to his farm eight times in 10 seasons.

As a rookie, LaRoche was hitting .207 on May 1. Maybe it got in his head. The next year, on May 3, he was batting .209. The following three years, always on that familiar May 2 or May 3, he was hitting .195, .137 and .167. That has been the pattern of his career except for two seasons. He also woke up on a day in May with a .222 average in ’09 and .172 in ’11.

LaRoche is so famous for his slumps that he’s a kind of mordant connoisseur of his own annual misery. One year, he was so awful that, in the same season, he went 0 for 20, 0 for 14, 2 for 30 and 2 for 31. In those four tormenting disasters, he went a combined 4 for 95.

Does LaRoche remember what year that was? “No,” he says.

That was last year, the best offensive season of his whole career when he had 33 homers and 100 RBI.

“What?” he says, not comprehending. Then he gets it. Crooked grin.

He looks at the numbers again. Slump and streak, this is your life, LaRoche.

With cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman still on the disabled list until Friday, with four vital games on tap in Atlanta against the first-place Braves, what should the Nats do to make sure their offensive funk doesn’t push them even more than their current three games out of the NL East lead?

Nothing.

You bought him, for two years for $25 million. Then you traded away Michael Morse, whose hot early season has tapered off to .233 with 11 RBI, only three more than LaRoche. So, now you have to play out the hand that you dealt to yourself. If this is like every other LaRoche season, he’ll end up near his norm from his last five healthy seasons — 26 homers, 91 RBI.

If he doesn’t, you won’t know it until August because LaRoche has salvaged valuable seasons that looked like disasters until the last six weeks. In ’08, he hit .213 in the first 81 games of the season and .330 with a 1.066 on-base plus slugging percentage thereafter. The Nats are not just sticking with, or stuck with, LaRoche for now. This will continue, with a few spot starts for Tyler Moore, for months.

“LaRoche is a rhythm hitter,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “The nuances of his mechanics are so subtle it’s a very fine line for him to have his timing or be just a little off. But you have to stick with him. One [lucky] hit or one good at-bat when he finds it and he could carry us for 25 days.”

The wait is the hard part. Despite 200 career homers, LaRoche has left both towns where the Nats play this week, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. In the latter, they still boo him. They forget his productive final numbers. They remember those damn slumps.

“He’s a veteran hitter. He’ll be fine. It’s just little things . . . timing a little off . . . pitch selection a little off, trying to make something happen,” said Manager Davey Johnson, adding he plans no off days for LaRoche, to whom he gave a “mental day” of rest recently and dropped to sixth in the order Sunday. “He contributes so much just defensively. The score could have been a lot worse [than 5-2)].”

Atlanta would be a good place for a LaRoche revival. “It’s a big series regardless of the time of year,” LaRoche said. “They came in here and killed us [in a three game sweep]. We need to try to even that up, get some momentum.”

Last year, LaRoche had four insanely hot streaks of slugging to offset his four major slumps. In those four explosions combined, he had 48 RBI and 19 homers in just 33 games.

Will LaRoche ignite, as he so often has, in the first days of May?

Don’t ask him. “I’m just picking every brain I can,” LaRoche says. He waits. He hopes. For the one hit, the one swing that sets him off and, in a blink, turns him again from the hunted to the hunter.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
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