The Washington Times - May 28, 2012, 12:43PM

MIAMI — Left fielder Michael Morse will take the next step in his return from a torn right lat muscle on Tuesday when he leaves Florida, and extended spring training, and heads north to Single-A Potomac to begin a minor league rehab assignment. 

Morse will play for Potomac on Tuesday and Wednesday before the Nationals re-evaluate the slugger and determine the next step for him as he nears a return to the active roster.

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Morse will play his last of four games in extended spring training on Monday. He has not yet been cleared to play the field, but manager Davey Johnson said he has been taking fly balls and ground balls and doing a good deal of throwing to test himself and has come through without issue.

Johnson has remained confident that Morse would be ready to come off the disabled list by June 8 at the latest. Asked this past weekend if that timetable was intact, Johnson said he would “for sure” be ready by the 8th, barring a setback. But whether or not he could return before that, possibly as soon as the Nationals’ next homestand, remains unknown.

“I have no idea,” Johnson said. “I think, the last time I talked to (Nationals trainer Lee Kuntz), he said I might let him play the field the 6th. I might let him play the field a lot earlier than that.

“We haven’t discussed that. Again, we’ll be cautious on it and it’ll come from the guys that are watching him down there and the conversations with Michael Morse on how he’s feeling down there.”

The reports coming from Morse’s rehab thus far have all been good. Johnson joked that Morse called him and told him after one rehab game he could hit fourth for the Nationals. 

And while that may well have just been Morse’s general excitement to get back to the active roster after already losing two full months of his season to this injury, when he does come back, it’s actually somewhat unlikely that he would hit fourth.

Adam LaRoche, hitting .295 with eight homers from that spot, has been the Nationals’ most consistent hitter all season and Johnson prefers to keep his lineup as left-right-left-right as possible so as to guard against late-game relief match-ups for the other team — which all means Morse most likely will hit fifth, behind LaRoche.

“I’ll hit him anywhere if I have him,” Johnson said. “More than likely, he would probably fit in the five hole right now.”

Morse’s return, of course, brings up other issues in the Nationals’ lineup. Right now, Johnson prefers to hit Steve Lombardozzi leadoff, the player on the team who best fits that spot. He’s been doing that, though, by playing Lombardozzi in left field and keeping Danny Espinosa at second base. Asked if Morse’s return might put more pressure on Espinosa and cause more of a share of their playing time at second, Johnson didn’t seem to think so.

“I like the way Espi is coming around,” Johnson said. “His approach is a lot better here the last three or four days. There’s a lot of good things going on. I’d like to have that problem with Michael Morse coming back.”

– A few hours after he was pulled from Sunday night’s game in the seventh inning with a tight right hamstring, catcher Jesus Flores said he was feeling better. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to play Tuesday, preferring to give himself an extra day to recover if necessary, but still felt it wasn’t anything too serious.

“He was feeling a lot better today but I’ll monitor that closely because of how many catchers we’ve had go down here,” Johnson said. “I don’t need another one going down, even if I have to hold him out until Friday. So that’ll be played daily.”

Flores, perhaps the player the Nationals can least afford to lose after the run on catchers they’ve had in the last two weeks, wasn’t scheduled to play Monday anyway. Carlos Maldonado will catch Jordan Zimmermann and, presumably, Edwin Jackson on Tuesday at the very least. 

In the event of an emergency on Monday the Nationals would most likely have to turn to Lombardozzi as their backup catcher.

“(Bryce) Harper came to somebody last night and said: ‘Am I the next guy to catch?’ I said: ‘I don’t think so.’ I think my next guy would probably still be Lombo. I haven’t broached that with him. I’ll let you guys do that for me.”

If the Nationals do end up needing to add a catcher, Johnson noted that Triple-A’s Jhonatan Solano is  off the minor league disabled list (where he’d been with a back issue) and is “only a phone call away.”

– Veteran utility man Mark DeRosa is getting closer to a return, going through what Johnson called a full workout on Sunday, but the nature of his injury (left oblique strain) is such that recurrence can happen easily and unexpectedly. That is something the Nationals would like to avoid.

While DeRosa said he is feeling better, he wasn’t entirely sure if that meant he was ready to return to the active roster.