VIERA, FLA. — About a half-mile down the road from Space Coast Stadium, while the rest of the Washington Nationals prepared for their game Wednesday afternoon, Adam LaRoche dug into the batter’s box on Field 3. He played for both teams in a simulated game between Nationals minor leaguers, hitting third every half-inning in an attempt to catch up on the missed at-bats his sprained left ankle cost him.
After he hit the ball on the ground, LaRoche could run only three-quarters speed to first base. Coaches yelled, “Easy!” as he trundled down the line. He had to remind himself not to turn at first base, the action that most irritated his ankle. For all the attention he paid his ankle, he never considered his left shoulder.
“It’s getting now where I don’t even think about it,” LaRoche said. “Which is great.”
Last year, his shoulder was all he could think about. LaRoche has recovered from the torn labrum that reduced him to a husk of himself for 43 games last season and sidelined him for the rest of the year. He does not expect the full strength of his throwing arm to return for two years. But he is confident it will no longer ruin him at the plate, that he can redeem his first season in Washington.
“I haven’t felt it swinging,” LaRoche said. “Not only have I not felt it, it’s felt stronger, way stronger, than it did in spring training or during the year last year. That feels great. Throwing will be, I feel it a little bit. But if I make a throw, it’s not going to set me back at the plate.”
If not for the ankle he sprained last week, LaRoche would have already made his spring training debut. Instead, after hoping to play Wednesday, the Nationals are holding him out until Saturday’s split-squad game against the New York Mets.
“We’re just going to stay cautious with him,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
LaRoche settled for the chance to hit off minor league pitchers, his first at-bats in a game setting since last May. LaRoche hit four groundouts and walked twice against hard-throwing minor league pitchers Paul Demny, Rob Gilliam and Kylin Turnbull.
“That was the thing I wanted to see, is live pitching,” LaRoche said.
Last year, LaRoche developed a small tear in his labrum during spring training. After receiving tests, he decided to play through the injury. “It only hurt to throw,” LaRoche said. “So I’m like, okay, it’s not affecting my swing. Work through it, rehab it. Oh well if it hurts to play.”
Even if LaRoche felt no pain when he swung, he realizes now the tear kept growing and it weakened his stroke. The lack of strength cultivated bad habits. LaRoche started guessing at pitches because he had to start his swing earlier than usual.
LaRoche still wanted to play through the injury, insisting to the Nationals he didn’t feel any pain while hitting. But in the first year of his two-year, $16 million deal, his performance stagnated. He hit .172 with a .288 on-base percentage and a .258 slugging percentage.
In early May, LaRoche finally admitted to himself that he could no longer keep going. Everything felt perfect, but he could not physically swing the bat like he wanted.
This winter, LaRoche began hitting in January and had to relearn his swing without the bad habits. Working with his father Dave, a former major league reliever, LaRoche felt himself trying to start his swing early, like his ailing shoulder had forced him to. Before he reported to spring training, he had corrected the flaw.
LaRoche now needs to perform exercises with small weights, rubber bands and other resistance every day as maintenance on his shoulder.
Had LaRoche had surgery earlier, he may have had a quicker recovery and would have had more time to prepare for this year. He would not have had to slog through the most miserable stretch of his career. But he wanted to play, and he would not change how he or the Nationals approached the injury.
“All the team can go off of is what I was telling them,” LaRoche said. “They don’t know how I’m feeling. So looking back, no, I’m glad I tried. If it would have been hurting to swing the bat, then I think it’s pretty selfish to go out there. Because it didn’t hurt to swing, I felt like it was worth a shot.
“I don’t have any regrets. It’s disappointing that they brought me here to do a job, and I couldn’t do it. That was the frustrating part. I know I needed to be on the field, and it didn’t happen.”
Nationals notes: In his first start, Jordan Zimmermann allowed no runs in three innings during a 3-3 tie against the St. Louis Cardinals. He allowed three singles and one walk while hitting a batter and striking out three, all swinging at sliders. . . . The teams agreed to end the game in a tie because the Nationals ran out of pitchers.