LaRoche's sweet swing signed and sealed

Slugger 'excited' by reaction to his joining Pirates

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Maybe the most jarring admission Adam LaRoche could have made yesterday, when the Pirates officially acquired him, came with these two words:

"I'm excited."

It was not surprising in the sense that LaRoche might have had reservations about his new team.

Rather, it was because, as those close to him can attest, it takes quite a bit to get his blood pumping.

"Adam? He's about as laid-back as it gets," his father, Dave LaRoche said from his Kansas home. "But I'll tell you what: He got into Pittsburgh on Thursday, called me that night and said, 'Dad, everybody's just so happy to have me here. You wouldn't believe it.' I could tell from his voice he was very excited."

That was how the son put it, too.

He watched some television in his hotel room, checked out the newspaper and heard from his new teammates by phone about the ebullient reaction from the Pirates' fan base to word of his arrival. And when he made it to the team's PNC Park offices yesterday morning for the completion of the four-player trade with Atlanta -- closer Mike Gonzalez and shortstop Brent Lillibridge going to the Braves, outfielder Jamie Romak coming to the Pirates -- there were handshakes and backslaps all around.

"Aw, man, the reaction here has been ... I don't have words for it," he said in his slow, western twang. "I love it. I love that people are getting excited about my coming here. I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm excited. They're not more excited than I am."

It is possible that some are.

"It's a good day," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said, beaming. "Getting Adam LaRoche brings a big-time dynamic to our lineup."

Tracy spoke effusively of LaRoche's power, his patience, his ability to adjust to pitchers based on counts and tendencies, and his defense, too.

Mostly, though, Tracy sounded enthused about what LaRoche can do for his teammates.

"Are teams going to be walking Freddy Sanchez and Jason Bay in the middle of our order? They might walk one of 'em, but they're not going to bypass all three," Tracy asked. "Adam LaRoche is a presence in there. And you know what? He's going to be an even bigger presence. This is someone who is getting better."

At 27, LaRoche has shown a steady incline over three seasons of Major League Baseball, from 13 home runs as a rookie to 20 to 32 last season. His average in 2006 was a career-best .285. His RBIs were a career-high 90.

This, too: His .655 slugging percentage after the All-Star break ranked second only to National League MVP Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies.

And his aim is to continue the trend.

"Absolutely," LaRoche said. "I've got a long way to go in this game as far as learning pitchers, learning more about everything. Guys who have been doing this for 10 years have such an advantage. I have every intention of putting up better numbers every year."

It might not hurt, either, that his new home stadium has a right-field fence so close -- the 21-foot Clemente Wall is 320 feet away at the foul pole -- that left-handed hitters often reach with a poke. But LaRoche downplayed that as little more than a temptation that could distract him from his usual even distribution of fly balls.

"I don't need to be looking at that wall. I've played here before, and I know how the ball goes out that way. That wall looks really enticing out there. But I don't need any bad habits."

Still, it cannot be overlooked that LaRoche homered twice in one game at PNC Park in August, the first just inside that 320-foot mark, the other to the top of the seating section there. One scout at MLB's winter meetings last month predicted that, if the Pirates acquired LaRoche, not only would his power numbers soar, but he also would "hit the ball into the river" with regularity.

The source of LaRoche's power is his sweet swing, one that defies baseball logic in that it is long -- and, thus, powerful -- while flowing with exceptional speed.

Dave LaRoche, a former All-Star reliever in the majors and now minor-league pitching coach of the Toronto Blue Jays, said his son's swing was born on a whim.

"When Adam was 10, I thought he looked a little rigid, so I had him stand upright, almost nonchalant, to try to relax him," Dave LaRoche recalled. "He started hitting again, and I told him he could go back. He said, 'No, I like this.' It hasn't changed since."

Except for the better.

"When I throw to Adam off a mound, the swing looks slow at first. I see the wrists come through, and it still looks slow. Then, I see the barrel of the bat and that big swoosh ... and you realize it was never slow. I think it all comes from the wrists, a lot like the old-time hitters."

Tracy compared the swing to that of Wally Joyner.

"Only better," he added. "It would appear long because he stands back in the box, upright, kind of relaxed, and he gets things started sooner than you're used to seeing. But there's a rhythm to his swing. You can tell there's a place he wants to get to as the ball is entering the hitting area."

Tracy expects to use LaRoche at cleanup, which will represent a move up in the order. He took 232 at-bats last season at No. 7, 140 at No. 5 and no more than 44 in any other slot.

True to his personality, LaRoche does not seem fazed.

"You know what I like? Men on base," he said. "And I don't care where in the order I get 'em. I liked the seven-hole last year in Atlanta because I had opportunities to drive in runs."

It helped that Brian McCann and Jeff Francouer were right in front of him.

"I could be anywhere and, if guys like that are getting on base for you, you'll get RBI chances. That's what I love."

LaRoche batted .276 with men on base, .254 when they were in scoring position. Those numbers are nothing special, but they, like all the rest, swelled as he played more.

He opened the season in a platoon, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox wary of his ability to hit left-handed pitching. But he became the Braves' everyday first baseman in late June, and his statistics erupted: From opening day until June 23, he batted .239 with 11 home runs and 38 RBIs. From June 24 to the end, he batted .323 with 21 home runs and 53 RBIs.

At that same turning point, LaRoche began taking MLB-approved medication for attention deficit disorder, a condition first diagnosed in high school. Before that, as he has acknowledged, his mind often would wander, including during games. As a result, managers and coaches criticized him during his ascent to the majors for what they perceived as a lack of passion.

LaRoche is unsure whether to credit the medication or his everyday status for his surge.

"Honestly, I think the medication stuff was blown out of proportion a little bit," he said. "It hasn't hurt at all. How much it's helped, I don't know. What I can say for sure is that, when it came to facing left-handers, the only way I was going to get locked in mechanically was to get at-bats against them. I'm just glad I got that chance."

He ended up with respectable splits, batting .297 against right-handers and .241 against left-handers.

The Pirates did not hold a news conference to introduce LaRoche, but the city should get its first glimpse of him at PirateFest, a three-day fan event which opens Friday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. He is tentatively scheduled to appear on the first day.

John Bazemore, Associated Press
Adam LaRoche hit 32 home runs last season for the Atlanta Braves.
Click photo for larger image.
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Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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