There are plenty of good friends in Adam LaRoche's life, but there's only one Chipper Jones.
"You playing tonight?" Jones asked LaRoche at the batting cage before the Pirates-Atlanta Braves game last night.
"Nah, I'm benched," LaRoche said.
"Me, too," Jones replied, trying really hard to keep a straight face.
It was the perfect thing for Jones to say at just the right time. Not because misery loves company. Because it went a long way toward easing an embarrassing moment for LaRoche.
Jones, long one of baseball's stars, wasn't in the Braves' lineup in their laughably easy 9-2 win after banging both wrists in a nasty collision with Pirates third baseman Jose Bautista Friday night. LaRoche wasn't in the Pirates' lineup for a much different reason -- his unseemly .165 batting average. Pirates manager Jim Tracy has tried just about everything to get LaRoche going, batting him everywhere from fourth to seventh. Last night, he tried sitting him against Braves left-hander Chuck James even though he's very aware the Braves are LaRoche's former team and he knew -- just like Jones -- that the night off would sting. It would sting any player, that and having that .165 average in bright lights on the scoreboard for everybody in both dugouts and the PNC Park stands to see.
"I can't blame the manager. I'd probably do the same thing if I was him," LaRoche said.
If this wasn't the season's low point for LaRoche -- the night would get worse when he pinch-hit in the eighth inning and bounced into a double play and his replacement as the Braves' first baseman, Scott Thorman, hit two home runs and drove in five runs -- the game Friday night surely was. He batted against Braves reliever Mike Gonzalez in the ninth of the Pirates' 4-1 loss and also hit into a double play. You probably remember the Pirates traded Gonzalez to get LaRoche in the offseason, when the conventional thinking had LaRoche solving the Pirates' offensive shortcomings.
"I wasn't at the plate thinking I was going to strike out or anything like that," LaRoche said. "Absolutely nothing is going my way."
LaRoche appears to be holding up OK. He joked about his average -- "Is it really .165? I thought I was still in the .120s or .130s" -- even though he knows there's nothing funny about it. More significantly, he's trying to take the right approach. "I'm just going to keep swinging until things turn for me," which, hopefully for the Pirates' sake, starts today when he's back in Tracy's lineup. That's the only approach LaRoche can take. He can't throw up his arms and quit and go home to his ranch in Kansas even though a portion of Pirates fans -- sick and tired of 14, going on 15, years of losing -- probably wish that he did. You might imagine the boos after those two double plays.
"Absolutely, I'm pressing. I've been pressing," LaRoche said. "Only a person who couldn't care less about the game or his teammates or his city wouldn't be pressing. I'm pressing because we would be winning more games if I'm doing what I'm capable of doing. I'm letting down the 24 other guys who are counting on me."
Maybe the Braves being here this weekend will help. It can't hurt LaRoche, right? If nothing else, the Braves have reminded him that he's still a pretty fair player. Those 32 home runs he hit last season seem like make-believe stuff to us. But they saw them. They know they were real.
"I think all 25 guys and 10 coaches have mentioned that to me," an appreciative LaRoche said.
It means the most coming from Jones. Actually, this isn't the first time LaRoche has heard it from him. "He's been with me through this whole thing," LaRoche said. "He calls me almost weekly and tells me what he sees. He'll analyze my at-bats. He'll ask me what I was thinking from pitch to pitch. He cares."
It's too bad Jones can't hit for LaRoche these days; he's batting .303 with 10 home runs and 23 RBIs. All he can do for him is offer his input. "He's a lot like me from the left side. He has a lot of moving parts and his whole success is based on timing," Jones said. "Right now, he's probably a little pull-conscious. He's not staying planted, not staying firm on the backside. All he needs to get going is to stay back and drive a ball out of the park to center field or the other way."
Jones also can remind LaRoche to stay positive.
"I tell him what my daddy always told me. 'Leopards don't change their spots.' He's only going to hit .160 for so long. As bad as he's going now, he'll go through a period when he'll be flat-out unconscious. A lot of teams are going to pay when that happens."
LaRoche will smile when he reads that this morning.
Everybody should have such a friend.