Few ballplayers approach their job more nonchalantly than Adam LaRoche. Before every game he sneaks away to a back room in the clubhouse for a 30-minute nap. His relaxed stance in the batter's box suggests a guy in a deli waiting on his order. His plan at the plate is not to plan. "I don't ever have an elaborate two-strike approach," says the Nationals' first baseman and cleanup hitter, an 11-year veteran with an auburn beard and a Southern drawl. "Ninety-five percent of the time, I'm just swinging with the motive of hitting the ball far. My job here? To do damage."
Last season was a disappointment for LaRoche, who hit .237—"Not much to say except that I stunk," he says—and for Washington, which missed the playoffs after leading the majors in wins in 2012. This year's club had the NL East locked up in mid-September on the strength of a dominant pitching staff and an offense that finished third in the league in runs scored. While third baseman Anthony Rendon is the team's MVP and Bryce Harper is still the biggest name, LaRoche has been the driving force in the middle of the order. In his fourth and likely final season as a Nat, he led the team in home runs (26, the fifth time in the last seven seasons he has hit 25 or more) and was second in walks (82), slugging (.455) and on-base percentage (a career-best .362). "We were all humbled by last year," LaRoche says. "But I think everyone is going to look back and see that it was a good thing—I think it made us stronger. It absolutely made me hungrier than ever."
There's no secret to winning in October—research shows that teams with high-strikeout pitchers don't have an edge in the postseason, nor do clubs that play small ball. Offenses that are more reliant on home runs, though, are more likely to play to their ability in the postseason. Since Aug. 1, no NL team has gone long more than Washington, and few hitters have recently been hotter than LaRoche, who belted 13 homers over the season's final two months, second most in the NL. A deep rotation and a balanced lineup with an unflappable slugger inflicting the damage: That's a formula that could give D.C. its first World Series title in 90 years.
BRAD MANGIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED