The Washington Times - May 5, 2012, 12:37PM

Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche did some range of motion work and resistance work on Saturday, testing his sore right oblique, and came away encouraged with his progress.

LaRoche, who was scratched from the Nationals’ lineup on Thursday afternoon, is aiming to return to the starting lineup on Tuesday when the Nationals open a three-game set in Pittsburg.

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“It’s a lot better today,” LaRoche said. “I feel better today than I did yesterday, especially with guys saying six weeks and stuff and it can linger. I’m not saying we’re in the clear, but it hasn’t gotten worse. It’s definitely gotten better.”

The Nationals best hitter thus far this season, LaRoche was hitting .311 with a .392 on-base percentage and .511 slugging percentage (four home runs, six doubles). He had been one of the few Nationals to get out of the gate this season on a tear and he’d been an integral part of their lineup with Michael Morse and then Ryan Zimmerman both missing.

LaRoche, who thinks he injured the area on Wednesday night diving for a ball in the field, likened the feeling to more of that of a bruise than a muscle strain. But he saw tangible progress when he tried to do a few exercises that gave him trouble two days ago and didn’t bother him on Saturday. He has not tried to test it with swinging yet, though he’s hoping to do so on Sunday. Nationals manager Davey Johnson said he’s also hopeful that the first baseman will be ready to return on Tuesday.

“It’s hard to say without doing something quick (like swinging) to see if it’s going to bother it,” LaRoche said. “You only get so much out of 20 percent swings off a tee. But if today is any judge of the direction it’s going, it should be a lot better in a day or two.”

That would be a welcome development for the Nationals who seem to be playing a man short rather often early this season. Zimmerman was on the active roster but available for four games, and now LaRoche has sat for three (including Saturday). It has allowed the Nationals to get some of their bench players more playing time to get them into a groove at the plate, but it’s also led to some creative forethought in the dugout — especially when games go to extra innings like six of the Nationals’ have this season.

“It seems like half our games we’re one man short,” Johnson said. “It really comes in (in extra-inning games). I looked around (Friday night) and I said to (starting pitcher Edwin Jackson), ‘Are you ready?’ In the sixth he had his sneakers on. In the eighth I looked at him and he had on his cleats. Later I said, ‘I know you’ve got your running shoes on. Have you got your bat and helmet?’ If it went past the 11th, it would have been: ‘You got your glove with you?’”