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Offseason work pays off for LaRoche

LaRoche is thumbs up for '09

PITTSBURGH -- Looking back on it, Andy LaRoche admits that he went into survival mode.

It was LaRoche's first chance to be an everyday player and a dream come true to play across the diamond from his brother after being traded to Pittsburgh on July 31. But the euphoria of both immediately dissipated when the anticipated results never followed.

In many ways, the end of the 2008 season could not come quickly enough for LaRoche. After having worked with hitting coach Don Long this winter, LaRoche said that he will arrive at Spring Training with a renewed sense of confidence and a belief that he is capable of performing in an everyday role.

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"I just needed to stay within myself," LaRoche said, reflecting on his late season struggles. "I just wasn't doing what had gotten me to that point. I was trying to get the ball too soon. It was [a] feeling I just couldn't get past."

LaRoche flew out to Long's home in Washington earlier this winter to spend some time with the hitting coach. The 25-year-old infielder came away having made some slight adjustments in his batting stance after the two spent time dissecting film and getting back to the basics.

"Probably the best thing that came out if was that time had passed since he had played, so a lot of the emotion was out of it," Long said of LaRoche's visit. "We could sit down and analyze what happened and why it happened and then move on. He was able to learn from it in an environment that wasn't emotional."

Most of the adjustments made were in LaRoche's preparation at the plate. Long's goal during the visit was to make sure LaRoche put himself in a position to make better pitch selection and, therefore, better contact. That meant getting LaRoche to focus on minimizing his head movement during his swing.

The trip was also as much about getting LaRoche's confidence back as it was in making any tangible adjustments. Long's hope was that he could keep LaRoche from magnifying what had been only a two-month period of struggles.

"I think it was more having the opportunity to get away from it and look at it and not making it bigger than it was," Long said. "You can either try and block it out of your mind and avoid it, but then usually at your first sign of struggle it all starts coming back if you don't deal with it. So I think having had the opportunity to have somebody who can give him some information about the results can give him help. The biggest job of a hitting coach is getting them to believe that they can so that they can be better."

LaRoche is fortunate that the Pirates still have him lined up to be the team's starting third baseman despite what happened last season. In 49 games with Pittsburgh, LaRoche hit just .152 with three home runs and 12 RBIs. As much as he struggled at the plate, LaRoche's defensive woes were just as pronounced. He committed nine errors in 45 starts.

Still, the Pirates believe that LaRoche does have the talent to be an everyday player and are going to give him the chance to be that again this year.

"That's a great feeling to know that they believe in me enough, even after how poorly I performed last year," said LaRoche, who was ranked by Baseball America as the Dodger's second-best prospect before the '08 season. "I owe it to my team and to the fans to just be me and do what I know I can do."

However, there is another factor in management's decision to stick with LaRoche. Namely, the lack of other immediate options.

The Pirates' next best option at third would be Neil Walker, the club's first-round pick in the First-Year Player Draft in 2004. However, management would like Walker to spend at least part of another season in Triple-A, where he can work on gaining more consistency offensively. Even with a strong showing in Spring Training, it's unlikely that Walker would make his way onto the Opening Day Major League roster.

Free-agent acquisitions Eric Hinske and Ramon Vazquez could also be options at third, but they will be used there only on a backup basis. General manager Neal Huntington has no intention of blocking LaRoche's development by sitting him for Hinkse or Vazquez unless extreme circumstances dictated that.

Not only has LaRoche worked to eliminate the pressure of being able to prove that he was worth the trade that sent Jason Bay to Boston, but he'll also open Spring Training fully recovered from a right thumb injury that lingered throughout the season. Though LaRoche never blamed the early season ligament tear on his struggles with the Pirates, coaches noted that the injury did seem to be a slight distraction to LaRoche while he was hitting.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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