LaRoche, bullpen power Nats to win

LaRoche, bullpen power Nats to win
April 8, 2011, 2:38 am
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Thursday, April 7, 2011, 10:45 p.m.
Updated at 12:19 a.m.
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By Mark Zuckerman
Nationals InsiderCSNwashington.comMIAMI -- Adam LaRoche has experienced slow starts in his career. In his first five big-league seasons, he never finished April with a batting average higher than .214. In 2007 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was hitting .133 on May 1.

Somehow, the veteran first baseman has always found a way to overcome those early struggles and put up good numbers by season's end. So when he looked up at the scoreboard in the top of the 11th Thursday night and saw a .130 average next to his name, he wasn't the least bit concerned.

"In the past I've gotten off slow, especially early on in my career, and pressed a little and let it snowball," he said. "The last couple years, I've gotten past that."

LaRoche's average may still sit at a paltry .167 six games into his Washington Nationals career. But he knows he's already done plenty to contribute to a victory for his new team, his two-run blast off Edward Mujica having given the Nationals a much-needed, 5-3 win over the Florida Marlins.

Despite an 0-for-10 slump entering his final at-bat Thursday, LaRoche had the confidence of his manager, who hasn't considered sitting his cleanup hitter once so far.

"He's just such a pro," Jim Riggleman said. "He doesn't get flustered or anything. He just kept getting good at-bats, and he connected."

LaRoche's blast capped an impressive victory for a Nationals club that desperately needed to leave Florida feeling good about itself after a 1-4 start to the season and three consecutive unsightly losses.

This was far from a picture-perfect performance. It included a shaky-yet-effective start from John Lannan, errors by Wilson Ramos and Laynce Nix and a major baserunning blunder by Danny Espinosa (who was gunned down trying to steal third base on his own with one out in the 10th).

But this game also featured as impressive a pitching performance as you'll ever see out of a bullpen. After Lannan departed two batters into the sixth, the quartet of Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Todd Coffey and Sean Burnett combined to toss six scoreless innings. They allowed a total of two hits, didn't walk a batter, struck out eight and threw 50 of their 65 collective pitches for strikes.

"That's what we're capable of," Clippard said. "There's a lot of good arms down there. That's what you're going to be seeing all year."

The Nationals had been seeing strong performances from Clippard, Storen and Burnett for the last week. And all three were on top of their games Thursday, especially Storen (who retired all six batters he faced, striking out three).

But perhaps the biggest bonus from this one was Coffey's 1-2-3 10th, one night after the right-hander allowed a double and two walks and was ejected by plate umpire Tim Tschida as he walked off the field.

This time, Coffey cruised through his inning of work, striking out Marlins All-Star Hanley Ramirez with a wicked slider.

"That's the great thing about it, especially being a bullpen guy," he said. "You can go out and have a horrible night the night before. But guess what? You've got the next night to redeem yourself."

As did LaRoche, who in his typical soft-spoken manner shrugged off his typical, early season offensive woes.

Though he hadn't collected a hit since the first inning Tuesday, he took some solace knowing he had struck the ball solidly twice during Thursday's game. He just happened to hit it right at Florida defenders.

So when he came up to bat in the 11th, with the game on the line, LaRoche decided to take those fielders out of the equation.

"I guess that's the only safe place to hit it right now, in the seats," he said. "It feels like that."Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at mzuckerman@comcastsportsnet.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.