No matter what you think of the RBI as a means of evaluation, facts are facts. Ninety-nine means a long winter of wondering, of thinking back to balls hit off the top of fences or whiffing with a man on third, or mental torture. One hundred means satisfaction, a nice round number to carry with you into free agency, maybe even a curtain call.
In the sixth inning Tuesday night, LaRoche walked to the plate stuck on 99. He drove in run No. 99 Friday night, a clean RBI single. He had since come to the plate 17 times since without pushing home any runs. In the fourth, he had smoked a double off the top of the center field fence. He knew he would not play tomorrow, and he worried his chances were running out. “You tell yourself, ‘Maybe it’s not meant to be,’ ” LaRoche said.
Josh Lindblom fed him a 1-0 changeup, and LaRoche launched it to right field, through the fog and into the Nationals’ bullpen. The home run gave him 33 for the year, a career high, but he cared more about the other milestone. The crowd knew the significance, and they roared as he trotted around the bases, touching home for No. 100.
“That one tonight felt like 20,” LaRoche said. “Anybody in the middle of the lineup, it’s kind of a milestone to reach 100. If I had finished on 99, it would have been a tough pill to swallow.”
When LaRoche hopped back into the dugout, the crowd kept roaring. LaRoche climbed up the steps and held his helmet in his right hand, a curtain call for a popular player who potentially has only one more regular-season home game left at Nationals Park.
The curtain call culminated LaRoche’s comeback season. After he played 43 games with a torn labrum last year and then underwent season-ending surgery, LaRoche came back this season with the most fulfilling season of his career. He has hit cleanup for a the team with the best record in baseball, tossing up the first 30-and-100 season of his career.
“You sign here, and first year blow out and don’t get to contribute or show anything, it makes for a long summer, and obviously a long winter,” LaRoche said. “To come back and prove to myself, my teammates and the organization I was healthy, it was a good sign. It’s a great feeling.”
LaRoche had reached 100 RBI once before. In 2010, he landed on 100, right at the nose, after a three-run homer on Game 161. LaRoche values RBI as much as any stat, because of the nature of his role.
“Way up there,” LaRoche said. “Mainly because of where I hit. My job, our job in the 4-5-6 range, is to drive in runs. The guys in front of me, their job is to score a bunch of runs. I’ve always said, I love being in a position in the lineup – I’ve done it in the six-hole, I’ve done it in the four-hole – in a position to drive in runs.”
LaRoche gave special credit Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman for reaching base in front of him so frequently. For the record, he drove in Zimmerman 20 times, Harper 16 times and Werth six times.
LaRoche can now look forward to playing in the playoffs for the third time in his career, and for the first time since 2005. He said he could celebrate again, one night after the Nationals clinched the division. And how he would follow up?
“I don’t know,” LaRoche said. “I’m still recovering from last night. I’ll have to take it easy tonight.”