Bob Smizik: It's April, and LaRoche is slumping on schedule
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Adam LaRoche could not have asked for a better situation when he came to bat with two out in the first inning last night against the St. Louis Cardinals. The bases were loaded and on the mound was Randy Keisler, whose nickname might well have been "Fodder."
Called up from the minors to make this start, Keisler had a previous major-league career distinguished by allowing lots of hits and runs. In 133 innings spread over parts of six seasons, he allowed 29 home runs. His career earned run average was 6.82. In 10 games last season with Oakland, opponents batted .350 against him.
If there was a human recipe for extracting LaRoche from the slump that was deep enough to draw a some boos from a few pretty stupid fans on opening day, it was Keisler.
LaRoche took a ball. On Keisler's second pitch, he lashed a shot to deep center field. It was enough to give the approximately 5,000 paying customers at PNC Park a cheap thrill, but not enough to challenge center fielder So Taguchi, who made a routine catch.
And so it was that the not-so-baffling slump of Adam LaRoche continued.
LaRoche was hitless in four at-bats and finished the night was a .097 batting average as the Pirates lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-2, in 12 innings.
This is not what the Pirates expected when they acquired LaRoche in the offseason from the Atlanta Braves for closer Mike Gonzalez. LaRoche was widely considered to be the man who would uplift their offense. He hit 32 home runs with Atlanta last season and was the left-handed power bat their lineup so desperately needed.
And by all accounts he will be. But likely not in April.
All but overlooked in LaRoche's otherwise splendid resume is the fact he is a notoriously slow starter. His career April batting average in his three-season major league seasons is .206.
He just happens to be taking his annual slow start to another and much lower extreme. He has one home run, two RBIs and 14 strikeouts in 31 at-bats.
With a left-hander pitching for the Cardinals, manager Jim Tracy dropped LaRoche to the sixth spot in the batting order.
He had batted fourth in all the team's previous games.
"I'm trying to give him a chance to get squared away," Tracy said.
"This will give him some space to get things sorted out."
LaRoche accepted the demotion graciously.
"I can't blame him [Tracy]. As bad as I've been, I would have done the same thing."
But such is the state of LaRoche's slump that nothing is helping.
In his second at-bat in the fourth inning, he hit the ball well again, but not particularly deep to right field, where Preston Wilson made the catch after retreating a few steps.
LaRoche wasn't the only Pirate having trouble with Keisler. He retired 12 consecutive batters beginning with LaRoche in the first until Jose Bautista homered in the fifth.
LaRoche's at-bat an inning later was particularly disheartening because Keisler looked to be weakening significantly.
Jack Wilson opened the inning by lining out to the first baseman.
Freddy Sanchez followed with a double to deep center and Jason Bay with a run-scoring single to left. Xavier Nady produced another well hit ball that Taguchi ran down in deep center. The stage was set for LaRoche to do something. He struck out swinging.
Against left-handed reliever Randy Flores in the ninth, LaRoche tapped weakly in front of the plate on a 1-2 pitch.
It helps LaRoche that the Pirate are playing respectably.
"I really am [at ease]," he said. "Us winning some games has helped. If we were losing, it would be getting at me more than it has because I haven't done anything to help. We've won some close games without me doing anything."
Tracy isn't about to panic. As he was quick to point out, he has been here before.
"At this time a year ago, I was answering a lot of these same kinds of questions about Jason Bay," he said.
"I have absolute confidence in Adam. He didn't do the things he's done over the last three years by accident."
LaRoche is doing all the things slumping hitters are expected to do. Nothing is working.
Still, he remains reasonably upbeat.
"I'm not going to worry about it. It's no fun going through it, but my stressing over it or pressing isn't going to be me out of it any faster."
This slump will end, and LaRoche will become a highly productive hitter.
Just about now, though, a lot of people are wondering when that's going to happen.
First Published April 10, 2007 11:37 pm