PITTSBURGH — Adam LaRoche walked into the visitors clubhouse at PNC Park this afternoon, found a locker waiting with his equipment and uniform already in place and made it clear he will be in the Nationals' lineup for Sunday's series finale against the the Pirates.
"Yeah," he said. "Otherwise I wouldn't be here."
Having emerged from a 7-inning rehab stint at Class AA Harrisburg on Friday night with no issues after spending the last two weeks on the disabled list with a strained right quad muscle, LaRoche and the Nationals determined the veteran first baseman is ready to return to a lineup that desperately needs him.
Had LaRoche been eligible to play tonight, the Nationals likely would have penciled him right into their lineup. But his required 15 days on the sidelines won't be up until Sunday, so LaRoche can only watch once more as his teammates try to get something going at the plate.
Out since May 9, when his lingering quad strain became too much to play through, LaRoche surprised himself with his quick healing process. He said he felt nothing in his right leg at all during Friday's minor-league game, including when he ran the bases.
"I was able to test — really test it — in the game yesterday. I couldn't even feel it," he said. "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."
LaRoche was the Nationals' most-productive, and most-consistent, offensive player through the season's first six weeks. He'll carry a .319 batting average, .421 on-base percentage and .925 OPS into Sunday's game against Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano, production that is sorely needed for a Nationals lineup that has scored the fewest runs in the majors this month.
Can the 34-year-old simply pick up where he left off, despite a two-week layoff and only two days of minor-league games?
"Everybody would hope, but to be realistic, it's not realistic to think that he could go right back to where he was," manager Matt Williams said. "But nonetheless, he's a guy that we want in our lineup."
LaRoche's return will force the Nationals to make a roster decision. There appear to be three candidates to clear space for LaRoche: first baseman/left fielder Tyler Moore, infielder Zach Walters or pinch-hitter/first baseman Greg Dobbs. Moore will see his playing time decrease, though he could get more at-bats in left field while Bryce Harper remains on the DL. Walters offers a switch-hitter who can play three infield positions. Dobbs was signed only after LaRoche went on the DL, but he's the most-accomplished left-handed batter on the Nationals' bench and has fared well in his limited time with the club.
"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. That is the reality, so somebody is going to have to go. But it's not easy, because we want everybody to do well."
Meanwhile, Gio Gonzalez played light catch this afternoon, his first throwing session since going on the DL with shoulder inflammation. The left-hander was supposed to do it Friday but was pushed back a day after noting stiffness in the shoulder. Gonzalez reported no issues with his arm after today's workout.