Fifty-one players later, one of the strangest games of the season was over, an 8-5, 14-inning victory for the Nationals over the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, a game that featured three blown saves, Jayson Werth's dropped fly ball that allowed the tying run to score in the bottom of the ninth, Carl Crawford's dramatic game-tying home run in the 12th and, finally, a three-run outburst for the Nationals off Kevin Correia in the 14th kick-started by a throwing error by Dodgers shortstop Justin Turner.
In the middle of all the action for the Nationals was first baseman Adam LaRoche, who didn't start the game due to a lower back strain. He hit a pinch-hit two-run homer in the ninth, singled in two runs in the 12th and drove in the go-ahead run in the 14th. Not a bad day for a guy who was supposed to have the day off.
He was also hit by a pitch in the 11th and couldn't meet with the media after the game since he was receiving treatment for his elbow and back.
"Getting hit in the elbow there makes it really difficult for him to swing the bat," manager Matt Williams said. "When we loaded the bases in the 12th he didn't know if he could swing. We were thinking about putting down a bunt, but he just stayed on the ball and hit a two-run single."
LaRoche is one of those players who doesn't get much attention, a reliable veteran who isn't a star nor an up-and-coming prospect who may turn into one. He's never made an All-Star team, won a lone Gold Glove, has driven in 100 runs just twice (100 on the nose both times), has never led the league in anything, has moved around a bit (Atlanta to Pittsburgh to Boston back to Atlanta to Arizona and then to Washington the past four seasons).
He's also a guy whom WAR doesn't rate very highly: His career-best season in that category was 2012, the year he finished sixth in the MVP voting, at 4.1. His second-best season was 2009 at 2.2. Most of his other seasons fall in the 1.1 to 1.8 range (his total this year). According to Baseball-Reference.com, a WAR of 2.0 is starter-level. His career triple-slash line is .264/.339/.471. This year, he's at 20 home runs, 75 RBIs with a .259/.364/.446 batting line.
All-Star? OK, maybe not. But solid regular? Yes.
LaRoche's wOBA (a stat that weighs all of his offensive numbers) of .352 ranks 36th in the majors out of 152 players who qualified by playing time. At first glance, his numbers don't blow you away for a first baseman, but this is 2014, not 2004. The league average wOBA at first base is .328.
If it's so easy to find a first baseman who can hit, then why do 21 teams have a lower wOBA than LaRoche's from their first basemen? Look at playoff-contending teams whose offenses have been hurt by a lack of production at first base:
Orioles: .320 wOBA
You don't think the Mariners or Brewers could use a player of LaRoche's caliber?
The Nationals have several players like this. Denard Span is a solid player who lacks home run power but is having an excellent season in the leadoff spot. Ian Desmond gets criticized for his below-average on-base percentage and erratic play in the field, but he's also a shortstop with 22 home runs and 81 RBIs. Asdrubal Cabrera never matched the numbers he put up in 2011 and the metrics haven't liked his defense, but his bat is still fine for a middle infielder. Even Jayson Werth was that "guy with the $100 million contract" and the numbers that didn't seem to match.
Those are guys for whom it's easy to focus on what they don't do instead of what they do deliver. See Mr. LaRoche: Some teams would have looked for a better first baseman, especially after a down year in 2013. To their credit, the Nationals saw a consistent run producer.
So it's a team that you could nitpick from a variety of angles. In fact, according to the wins above average (as opposed to wins above replacement) totals at Baseball-Reference, the Nationals are eighth in the NL in WAA at catcher, eighth at first base, 10th at second base, ninth at shortstop, 10th in left field and sixth in right field. The only positions where they rate even one win above average are third base (mostly Anthony Rendon) and center field (Span).
Nonetheless, the Nationals are a good team, a team proving to be the best in the National League, and not just a team riding its starting rotation. Maybe they don't have an MVP candidate, but they have a solid lineup one through eight, including a 34-year-old first baseman who quietly does his job year after year.