Adam LaRoche returning to Nationals on Sunday

Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche (25) smiles as he talks with first base coach Tony Tarasco (32) before a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park, Monday, May 5, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Adam LaRoche will rejoin the Nats a day earlier than originally planned. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

When Adam LaRoche traveled Friday afternoon to Harrisburg, he planned to stay two days and play both Friday and Saturday night. He figured he would need two games to excise the final tightness from his right quadriceps muscles, which landed him on the disabled list March 10.

Saturday afternoon, though, he strolled into the Nationals clubhouse in Pittsburgh. “Plans changed,” LaRoche said. His leg felt so good after he played seven innings Friday night that he cut short his rehab by a day. After a workout Saturday during batting practice, LaRoche plans to return Sunday, his first day eligible to return.

“Otherwise,” LaRoche said, “I wouldn’t be here.”

The Nationals figured their cleanup-hitting first baseman would play his first game Monday. Instead, his needed bat will be in the lineup Sunday at PNC Park. With LaRoche on the disabled list, they scored only 3.6 runs per game. After he played one game at Class A Potomac and another at Class AA Harrisburg, he’s ready to return.

“I’ve been able to test – really test it – in the game yesterday,” LaRoche said. “I couldn’t even feel it. I couldn’t even say that it’s just tight or even sore. I don’t feel it all. I was pretty surprised it was gone.”

“I just thought as bad as it hurt, with what we could see on the MRI, it was pretty obvious there was something there,” LaRoche added. “I didn’t think a week off would make it go away. I thought it was going to linger for a while. Sure enough, it was gone.”

When he went on the DL, LaRoche was hitting .319/.412/.504, all of which rank first on the Nationals. He hopes he can recapture the same feeling he had at the plate, and that the time off didn’t hinder ability to see and identify pitches.

“We’ll find out,” LaRoche said. “I saw it okay the last two days. It’s really weird with the different lighting. It just looks different. It reminded me of playing in the minor leagues. Something about it, there’s a change there, the ball coming out, it just didn’t look the same. Other than that, it felt good.”

“Everybody would hope,” Manager Matt Williams said. “But to be realistic, it’s not realistic to think that he could go right back to where he was. But nonetheless, he’s a guy that we want in our lineup. But two games? Five games? You just don’t know.”

At Harrisburg last night, LaRoche went 1 for 3 with an intentional walk. He ran well, moving from second to third on a pitch in the dirt. The real test, though, came from the unexpected.

LaRoche was standing in the Senators’ dugout, next to the Gatorade cooler, when a left-handed batter swung and lost the bat on his follow-through. The lumber flew right at LaRoche. He ducked and jumped out of the way. The bat nailed the Gatorade cooler and snapped the nozzle off, and Gatorade drenched his pants.

“He said he knew he was ready to play at that point,” Williams said, laughing.

To make room for LaRoche on the roster, the Nationals will likely either jettison veteran Greg Dobbs or option Tyler Moore to Class AAA. Moore can provide help in left field, but Dobbs has more experience, and has had more success, in a bench role.

“There’s a lot of factors that will go into it,” Williams said. “Without going into any detail, it’s never easy to send somebody to the minor leagues. But Rochie is a very important part of our team, so that is the reality, so somebody is going to have to go.”

In his first game off the disabled list, LaRoche knows he will face a rude welcome. Fans at PNC Park have booed LaRoche ever since he left Pittsburgh, where he played from 2007 through 2009.

“Can’t wait,” LaRoche said.

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