The Washington Times - March 8, 2012, 12:56PM

VIERA, Fla. — Adam LaRoche was back on the Nationals minor league backfields Thursday morning, facing off with, among others, top left-handed prospect Robbie Ray as he continues to see pitches, get at-bats and lightly test his sprained left ankle.

LaRoche, who homered off Ray in one at-bat, came out of today’s game with a very positive review.

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“It feels a lot better today,” LaRoche said. “It felt better than I thought it would. I still feel it, but turning’s not as bad. I just don’t want to do something where we’re back to square one. That’s why I’m coming down here and not playing in (the major league) games right now, to make sure I can take it easy.”

LaRoche used the opportunity in the minor league game to see a high number of pitches, work on his timing and track pitches as they came into the zone. He was allowed to run the bases on his home run, though trotting isn’t exactly the best test of the ankle. He did appear to be running harder to first base than he did in Wednesday’s game and said he was able to make a few turns at first base and stop himself and was encouraged by the way he felt.

If he remains feeling this way — or preferably improving — he said he saw no reason why he wouldn’t be able to get into one of the Nationals’ major league games on Saturday. They’ll play a split squad that day with one team in Lakeland against the Tigers and the other home against the Mets.

“From what I felt today and being on the basepaths a couple times and rounding first, yeah (I think I could play Saturday),” he said. “I think what they’re worried about is getting in a situation where I’m trying to score from first or something’s going on in the game where I have to turn a base really hard. But if I can be semi-careful with that for the next few days, then I’ll hopefully get this thing behind us.”

– Nationals outfielder Michael Morse (lat strain) was feeling better on Thursday as well and Nationals manager Davey Johnson said he’d expect to send his cleanup hitter over to the minor league side to do something similar to LaRoche in the next three or four days. Morse’s issue, which he explained on Tuesday as a knot underneath his shoulder blades, only crops up when he’s throwing in the outfield so he could DH without issue.

– Infielder Andres Blanco, a non-roster invitee who has shown a high ability in the infield and could be in the mix with Steve Lombardozzi for the team’s utility infielder spot but may also find himself in Triple-A, was not present on Thursday. Blanco was undergoing a procedure to treat an ear infection. He had been on antibiotics for the infection.

– Jason Michaels got the start in left field in place of Roger Bernadina on Thursday against the Astros and Livan Hernandez. Bernadina had been in the original lineup for Thursday’s game but he played all nine innings Wednesday vs. the St. Louis Cardinals so Johnson said he opted to give him the day off instead. 

– John Lannan will pitch in Lakeland on Saturday against the Detroit Tigers while Chien-Ming Wang remains at home in Viera to face the New York Mets. Bryce Harper will also be on the trip to Lakeland, Johnson said, to face Justin Verlander.

– The Nationals will most likely make their first cuts of the spring on Monday, Johnson said, after a grueling weekend schedule that puts them in Jupiter Friday for a night game before the split squad and then back in Jupiter again on Sunday.