LaRoche has banner day in return to 51s’ lineup

Andy LaRoche needed only one pitch Saturday night to prove he was healthy again.

In his first game back after 12 days on the disabled list with a sore left shoulder, the 51s third baseman launched the first offering he saw from Fresno pitcher Matt Palmer over the 20-foot-high wall in straightaway center field at Cashman Field, more than 440 feet from home plate.

Although LaRoche appeared to hit a home run, umpires ruled the play a triple after the ball hit a banner above the wall and bounced back onto the field.

Nevertheless, the towering shot served notice that the Los Angeles Dodgers’ top prospect is back on track.

The 23-year-old LaRoche, who also singled and finished 2-for-3 in Las Vegas’ 8-2 loss, underwent surgery on his left shoulder in the offseason and aggravated it diving for balls in early June.

An MRI of LaRoche’s shoulder came back negative, but he still was placed on the DL on June 18.

“I just tweaked it a little. It wasn’t anything serious. It was like a deep bruise in there,” LaRoche said. “It’s been healthy the last four or five days, but they wanted to make sure 100 percent that it’s OK.”

LaRoche hit .322 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs in 55 games with the 51s last season but is batting .254 with three home runs and 13 RBIs in 36 games this year.

“These last two months are going to be big for him, to put himself in position for a September call-up or maybe before then if he gets hot and gets back up there,” Las Vegas manager Lorenzo Bundy said. “The third-base situation up there is still a little crazy right now.”

Despite his struggles at the plate this season, LaRoche received his first promotion to the majors May 6.

“It was unbelievable,” said LaRoche, whose father, Dave, pitched 14 years in the big leagues and whose brother, Adam, is a first baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I was living a dream there for the four weeks I was up.”

LaRoche, who was sent back to Las Vegas on June 2, hit .400 (4-for-10) with three RBIs in his first four games with Los Angeles but had only four hits in his last 28 at-bats and finished with a .211 average (8-for-38) with 15 walks.

“Obviously my average wasn’t that great, but I felt comfortable up there,” LaRoche said. “I had a lot of patience. I just wasn’t getting some of the hits to fall.”

LaRoche, who admits he was a bit in awe of his surroundings in the majors, said the experience inspired him.

“I got a taste of what it’s like, and that gives me motivation to work harder down here and get back up there,” he said.

NOTES — Right-hander D.J. Houlton missed his scheduled start for the 51s on Saturday because he was promoted to the Dodgers before the game. The 27-year-old is 5-4 with a 3.90 ERA for the 51s this season. Houlton spent the entire 2005 season with Los Angeles, going 6-9 with a 5.16 ERA.

The Dodgers optioned left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo to Las Vegas.

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