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Notes: Saturday starter still uncertain

Notes: Saturday starter still uncertain

WASHINGTON -- Jason Schmidt's timetable to return from injury hits overdrive when he makes his first Minor League rehab assignment start Wednesday for Class A Inland Empire.

Even in a best-case scenario, though, Schmidt won't be ready to slip into the rotation slot previously occupied by Brett Tomko, which comes up Saturday in Pittsburgh.

A new candidate for that start surfaced Tuesday, when manager Grady Little said nice things about right-hander D.J. Houlton, truly a forgotten man in the Dodgers' organization.

Houlton, listed as the starting pitcher for Triple-A Las Vegas on Tuesday night in Nashville, is 5-2 with a 2.91 ERA, and he is easily the most effective pitcher for the 51s this year.

Houlton has had a wild ride during his Dodgers career. Taken from Houston as a Rule 5 Draft pick after the 2004 season by then-general manager Paul DePodesta, Houlton spent the entire 2005 season in the Major Leagues, going 6-9 with a 5.16 ERA in 35 appearances (19 starts).

But with a new management team in place for the 2006 season, and new starters Jae Seo and Tomko on the roster, Houlton not only didn't make the big-league club out of Spring Training, he struggled at Las Vegas to go 9-11 with a 5.60 ERA and never got a callup.

"He's pitched awfully well," Little said of Houlton, while making no commitment for Saturday. "His command's been good with the fastball. That's the biggest difference this year to last year."

Little seemed to be leaning toward replacing Tomko with Hong-Chih Kuo, the presumed favorite to win the fifth-starter job in Spring Training until he strained a shoulder muscle. Kuo was on schedule to start Saturday after he started Monday for Las Vegas, but he allowed four earned runs in 4 2/3 innings. Kuo threw 80 pitches and struck out five while walking two.

"His trouble came after 60 or 65 pitches," said Little. "He's still a work in progress. We'll make a call on him for Saturday or not. We're not sure yet. We can wait until Friday."

Kuo is 0-1 with a 3.60 ERA in seven games (five starts) for Las Vegas. He's pitched twice in relief for the Dodgers this year, allowing four earned runs in 2 1/3 innings.

Little said to make room for whoever is promoted to pitch Saturday's game, the Dodgers likely would go with 12 pitchers, meaning a position player would be removed. The most likely candidates would be infielders Andy LaRoche or Tony Abreu.

More on Schmidt: On the disabled list since April 15 with shoulder bursitis, Schmidt starts an 11 a.m. PT game in San Bernardino on Wednesday. Among the observers will be Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti and trainer Stan Conte.

Little said what Schmidt does after Wednesday is undetermined. He first said Schmidt would rejoin the club in Pittsburgh, but said he didn't suspect the righty would be activated off only one rehab start, then wavered on whether Schmidt would even make the flight to Pittsburgh.

"There's a lot to be determined after what he does tomorrow," Little said. "What's most important is for him to build endurance and for us to find out for sure he's sound."

Schmidt made about 75 pitches in a bullpen simulated game on May 20. Presumably, if he gets his pitch count into the neighborhood of 80 on Wednesday, and is effective, activation could be considered.

Las Vegas update: Veteran catcher Kelly Stinnett retired Tuesday to spend more time with his family. He was replaced on the roster by Jacksonville catcher Octavio Martinez. Three days earlier, the Dodgers traded journeyman infielder Tomas Perez to the Chicago White Sox for pitcher Dwayne Pollok.

Tsao improves: Reliever Chin-hui Tsao, on the disabled list after feeling shoulder irritation while warming up May 22, played catch Tuesday for the first time since. Tsao threw softly and reported no problems.

Stults regresses: While Houlton has gotten back on track, Eric Stults has gone the other way. Stults is the left-hander who beat the Mets in a key September game last year. He's been taken out of the Las Vegas rotation and he allowed six earned runs in 3 1/3 innings in relief of Kuo on Monday.

Washington insiders: Several Dodgers players, coaches, staff members and broadcasters will make two very special trips this week. On Wednesday, a group will visit the Walter Reed Medical Center for the second consecutive year to meet with several soldiers who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Thursday morning, representatives from the club will tour the Pentagon on a visit set up by Little and his wife, Debi.

Coming up: Derek Lowe (4-5, 3.64 ERA) opposes Washington's Mike Bacsik (1-0, 1.98) in the second game of the three-game set on Wednesday at 4:05 p.m. PT.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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