The Washington Times - April 5, 2012, 01:45PM

CHICAGO — Two Washington Nationals outfielders will take their first major steps toward a return to the active roster on Thursday evening. Rick Ankiel and Michael Morse will suit up for Double-A Harrisburg, Ankiel serving as a designated hitter and Morse playing left field. 

The Senators will open the 2012 season in Bowie, Md., against the Baltimore Orioles’ Double-A affiliate. Morse and Ankiel are expected to play all four games of the season-opening series there. 


For Morse, depending on how he feels in his return from a right lat strain, that could be all he needs. He is eligible to come off the disabled list on April 10, the second game of the Nationals’ three-game series in New York. Though Ankiel hasn’t played in a major league spring game since March 27, he is not eligible to return until April 14 because the Nationals did not purchase his contract and put him on the 40-man roster until March 30. They cannot backdate him before that.

Johnson said he wouldn’t hesitate to bring Morse to New York if he was ready, not waiting until the team returns home on April 12. 

“It will be entirely up to how he’s feeling and what he’s able to do,” Johnson said. “But knowing Michael Morse, I’ll probably get a phone call in about three or four days saying he’s ready.”

It’s a good sign for the Nationals that Morse will be playing the field — something he did not get a chance to do at all during spring training — and will hopefully be able to test the strain with a few throws from the outfield at game speed.

Ankiel, who has battled quad soreness all spring, would likely need less time as far as healing goes but his rehab stint will likely be elongated because of the required time on the disabled list. When he returns, he will presumably assume his role as the Nationals’ starting center fielder.

– Drew Storen and Chien-Ming Wang traveled back to Viera, Fla. on Wednesday and will continue their rehab from right elbow joint inflammation and a strained left hamstring, respectively.  

Wang is scheduled to throw off a mound in three or four days — a significant step for him to test the hamstring with the added pressure that comes from throwing on a downward plane. 

Storen has been throwing off a mound since Saturday and Johnson said he expects his closer to begin throwing to hitters in seven to 10 days down in Viera at extended spring training. Once he gets through that fine then he will go on a rehab assignment. 

Johnson said he expects both pitchers to be ready to return to the roster by “the end of his month.”

– In the meantime, Johnson plans to use Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez to close and plans to alternate them basically day by day. Rodriguez pitched in Tuesday’s exhibition game so Lidge will be the closer today if the situation arises. 

Basically, I divide bullpens into A and B and try to keep them throwing every other day,” Johnson said. “With Storen out, I did that in spring training and it worked out pretty good. Both of them finished up great, both of them had very strong springs, and so I’ll start the year in that same situation.”

– The Nationals will send Stephen Strasburg to the mound at 1:20 (CT) and Johnson said he doesn’t plan to keep him to a firm pitch count but will hope to keep him around 85-100 pitches.