Andy LaRoche faces pressure


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ST. LOUIS -- The man who knows Andy LaRoche best in the Pirates' clubhouse -- that would be his big brother, Adam -- insists the kid is mentally tough. I'm thinking we're going to find out just how tough real soon.

There is no one on the team under more pressure than Andy LaRoche, and it seems to mount a little more each day as he continues to struggle under Pittsburgh's relentless watch. Let us count the reasons:

One -- we'll get the obvious out of the way right here -- LaRoche has to hit and field well for the Pirates to have any chance to end their constant losing. The third base job is his at the moment, but general manager Neal Huntington hinted late in spring training that he won't keep it long without the appropriate production. If that was meant to inspire LaRoche, it didn't work. He has gone 0 for 6 in the first two games against the St. Louis Cardinals and dropped a routine popup last night that led to two unearned runs in a 9-3 loss. It was his third error -- and there are still 160 games to go!

Two, LaRoche still is trying to fit into a clubhouse and a city that adored Jason Bay, the player the Pirates traded last summer to get him, outfielder Brandon Moss and pitchers Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris. It's always tough for a young guy to establish himself in the big leagues, but it's especially brutal under those circumstances.

And three, LaRoche still must show those scrutinizing Pittsburgh eyes that he can play. You have your doubts, don't you? Of course, you have doubts. It's not just that dropped popup. LaRoche has started this season the way he ended the last one, which is to say he has been awful. In the opener against the Cardinals Monday, he struck out with the bases loaded, didn't get a hit in three at-bats and booted two groundballs, the first leading to two St. Louis runs. That mental toughness would have been challenged immediately if the Pirates hadn't pulled out an unlikely 6-4 win with four ninth-inning runs.

Other than that, there's no pressure on LaRoche.

It's a good thing the kid has someone he can lean on.

"I've tried to get him to see the big picture and not stress on the everyday ups and downs," Adam LaRoche was saying yesterday before the game. He's the Pirates' first baseman and, at 29, is four years older than his brother.

"Young guys don't realize how many games there are ahead. They look at every game like it's their last game and feel like they have to carry the team. They try to do too much and, then when they struggle, they get a little timid. Very few young guys don't go through that. The only ones who don't go through it are the really great ones.

"You've just got to keep fighting through it."

It's not as if Andy LaRoche didn't fight the good fight last season. He tried his best, you know? But every time he punched, the game punched back harder. His year started on the Los Angeles Dodgers' disabled list because of right thumb surgery. It ended with him having two horrible months for the Pirates when he hit .152 in 49 games, endured hitless streaks of 27, 21 and 16 at-bats, had more strikeouts (30) than hits (25) and made nine errors.

"It seemed like there were 20 defenders in the field when I hit," LaRoche said. "I couldn't ever even sneak one through."

That's why spring training was so significant for LaRoche. He showed a little of that mental toughness by hitting .333 with a couple of home runs in 51 at-bats.

"That was important for me," he said. "I needed to get a little of the confidence back that I started to lose last season."

Now, LaRoche needs to do something in the games that count.

Not so much to justify the Bay trade. "My point to him is he's not here to replace Jason," Adam LaRoche said. "That's my job, Jack Wilson's job, the guys who have been here, their jobs. 'You just have to be you,' I told him. 'Obviously, they liked something about you to trade for you. Just do what you can do. Be you.' "

Not to show Pittsburgh. "They haven't seen me yet," Andy LaRoche said. "Not even close. But it's going to come."

Not even to hold on to his job, which could go to veteran Ramon Vazquez in the short term or maybe former No. 1 pick Neil Walker later in the season. "You can't let that get in your head," big bro said. "If you're at the plate or at third base and it's in the back of your mind what the general manager or the manager or the media or the fans are thinking, you're done."

No, Andy LaRoche needs to have some success soon for Andy LaRoche.

"I feel good, comfortable," he said. "I know what I'm capable of doing. Given a full season, the numbers will be there."

That's a nice thought.

Baseball will eat its young that are weak and unproductive.

The LaRoche kid had better be mentally tough.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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