WASHINGTON - Last season was rough as could be for Adam LaRoche: He tried to play through a torn labrum in his left shoulder, wound up hitting .172 with three homers in 43 games, then relented and had surgery.
The offseason that followed was filled with talk in Washington about whether the Nationals would sign free-agent Prince Fielder to replace LaRoche at first base.
Nowadays? Fielder ended up in Detroit, LaRoche is healthy and batting cleanup - and carrying the NL East-leading Nationals.
On Wednesday night, LaRoche broke open a tight game with a three-run double for his 1,000th career hit after homering for No. 999, Gio Gonzalez took over the NL strikeout lead from teammate Stephen Strasburg by fanning 10 in seven innings, and Washington beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-4.
"Shoot, I feel like I've been playing 50 years to get 1,000. I'm serious," said the 32-year-old LaRoche, who's in his ninth season and with his sixth club. "To look at some of these guys - 3,000-plus hits is just unbelievable."
Batting fourth while slugger Michael Morse is on the disabled list, LaRoche's .339 batting average, seven homers and 29 RBIs all pace Washington.
Tonight: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals, 7:05 p.m.
Pitching matchup: Pirates RHP James McDonald (2-2) vs. Nationals RHP Jordan Zimmerman (2-3)
Talk about a turnaround.
"He's only human. 'I want to show everybody: What were you thinking about, with the Prince (talk)?' We sure missed him last year," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "He's making that (Fielder) move look real good - that lack of move."
LaRoche, for his part, said he isn't motivated by any of that sort of chatter as much as by an inner desire to make up for a lost 2011.
"I wanted to prove to myself that I could come back from this surgery and do what I know I'm capable of doing," he said, moments after his 10-year-old son cradled a baseball with the number "1,000" written in blue ink. "To come out and do it is nice reassurance."
LaRoche and Xavier Nady - teammates in Pittsburgh in 2007-08 - hit consecutive homers off Erik Bedard (2-5) in the sixth. It was Nady's 100th career homer.
The next inning, facing reliever Evan Meek with the bases loaded and two outs in a 4-3 game, LaRoche lined the first pitch down the right field line.
"Hitters know that they're probably going to see a fastball. He was sitting on it," said Meek, who was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis on Wednesday and walked two batters and hit another before LaRoche's big moment. "I served it up - and he did what he should have done."
LaRoche, who also singled in the first inning, didn't realize exactly where his total was until he turned to see the scoreboard noting his milestone.
"That caught me a little off-guard," said LaRoche, who doffed his cap while the announced crowd of 25,942 gave a standing ovation.
"Always, in my opinion, Mr. Clutch," said Gonzalez (5-1), who allowed three runs and four hits. His 60 strikeouts are four more than Strasburg's total.
Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard let in one run in the eighth, and struggling fill-in closer Henry Rodriguez overcame an error by shortstop Ian Desmond for his ninth save in 12 chances. With another reliever warming in the bullpen just in case, Rodriguez struck out Clint Barmes with a 99 mph fastball, then got Josh Harrison to ground into a double play.
"We believe in Henry 100 percent," Gonzalez said. "The only one who can hurt Henry is himself."
In Bedard's six innings, he gave up four runs, three on solo shots. In his previous outing, a week earlier against Washington, Bedard lasted eight pitches before departing because of back spasms.
This time, the second batter Bedard faced, 19-year-old Bryce Harper, barely missed connecting for a homer in the third consecutive game, sending a shot high off the out-of-town scoreboard on the wall in right field and ending up with his first major league triple. Ryan Zimmerman's groundout drove home Harper.
Desmond made it 2-0 in the third with his fifth homer, and LaRoche and Nady made it 4-0 in a three-pitch span three innings later.
In the seventh, Gonzalez walked Barajas, then gave up Harrison's first homer of the season, a two-run shot to left that cut Washington's lead to 4-3. That ended Gonzalez's streak of 58 innings without allowing a homer.
Still, the Pirates' offensive woes continued: They've gone a dozen games without scoring more than five runs in any.
"Some days you're going to feel good. Some days, you're not," Harrison said. "It's a matter of fighting through it."