The 24-year-old LaRoche spent the 2006 campaign in Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A Las Vegas, batting over .300 in both places and demonstrating the ability the Dodgers knew he had when they selected him in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft.
LaRoche took a different approach the second time around in Spring Training, but struggled to find a place on the team, competing with Wilson Betemit for a spot at third base. Instead, Betemit and Garciaparra broke camp at third and split time there. LaRoche found himself in Las Vegas again.
"Last year, I felt like I came in and tried to do too much to take the job from Betemit," LaRoche said.
LaRoche arrived early in preparation for the 2008 season. He showed up in January for a two-week workout in Vero Beach just to get moving around.
"I've definitely come here more prepared," he said. "The workout got us on the field. It got us out of the house and into warmer weather."
LaRoche said he realizes the opportunity at hand and wants to take advantage of it. He started off by pressing a bit, swinging at a number of bad pitches in the club's first intrasquad game, but said he is ready mentally.
"In the past, I was pretty sure I'd have to have a really good spring to make the team," said LaRoche, who is batting .333 (2-for-6) on the young exhibition season after Saturday's 1-0 loss to the Mets at Tradition Field. "This year, if I go out and stay within myself, I'll be fine. I don't have to hit .500 or have seven or eight home runs. I don't have to homer on every pitch. I just need to do my thing and not put too much pressure on myself."
Part of LaRoche's improved presence in the clubhouse, ironically, comes from his relationship with his competition at the hot corner -- Garciaparra, a six-time All-Star and two-time batting champion. The pair have lockers close to one another, and the 34-year-old Garciaparra is very approachable whenever the younger infielder has a question.
"We've always got along great, and he's always been unbelievable to me and the rest of the young guys," LaRoche said. "He's a class act. It's great seeing a future Hall of Famer so down to earth like that. Just watching him go about his business has been helpful to me.
"If I have any questions, I'll ask him, whether it's at the plate or third base. We haven't talked about going for the same job; we both know. We'll accept what roles they give us -- at least I will. I'm pretty sure he would, too. If they want him to play third and have me come off the bench, that's their decision. I'll keep working hard to make myself better and do what I can do to help the team win a ballgame."
LaRoche was part of a dazzling defensive effort by the Dodgers in the loss to the Mets. In the top of the sixth inning, he made a diving stop of a ball hit by Jose Reyes, then tossed out the fleet-footed shortstop in a close play at first.
In a light-hearted moment after the game, LaRoche said his one great performance was nothing compared to second baseman Delwyn Young's three diving stops.
"I know a lot of the coaches I've played for like my defense," LaRoche said. "But look at D.Y. out there making those plays. Heck, that just proves anybody can make those plays. He's an outfielder coming in and dominating in there and making web gems. We're young guys just trying to get on ESPN."