Casey Blake seeks timely return

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake took what appeared to be a major step forward Wednesday in his effort to get back onto the field after being sidelined for the past week and a half because of inflammation in his lower back.

In addition to doing what he was scheduled to do, which was to take ground balls and throw, Blake wound up taking live batting practice at least one day ahead of schedule.

"Casey had a really good day," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said after the team's Cactus League game, a 6-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox before 6,037 at Camelback Ranch. "They added more intensity here and there, and he actually took some live BP in the cage. If he comes in [Thursday] feeling good, we'll figure out where he goes from there."

Although Blake could be ready for game action in the next couple of days if he continues to improve, he still is expected to begin the season on the 15-day disabled list because there simply isn't enough time left in spring training for him to get ready for opening day. When Blake is put on the DL, the move can be backdated to Tuesday as long as he doesn't play in any more Cactus League games, meaning Blake would be eligible for activation as early as April 6.

Because of that backdating rule, Mattingly said any game action for Blake in spring training would be on the minor league side.

"I can't really see that scenario," Mattingly said of Blake playing in any more Cactus League games. "That would be like taking a chance for no reason. What we have been able to do with a lot of the guys who aren't playing here is get them plenty of at-bats [in minor league games]. The at-bats aren't necessarily about where you get them. It's just about getting those at-bats and getting your timing down."

Because minor league spring-training games are loosely structured, Blake also can get extra at-bats by batting in every inning if he chooses. In fact, if there are multiple games taking place on adjacent minor league fields, a player can go back and forth between fields and bat in every inning of each game, theoretically doubling his number of at-bats. And if the pitching he is facing isn't necessarily big league quality, that doesn't really matter.

"Kids in A-ball can throw 94 or 93 [mph]," Mattingly said. "Getting your timing and seeing pitches is really what it's all about."

Blake has been out since feeling something in his back after laying down a sacrifice bunt and running hard to first base in the first inning of a game against the San Francisco Giants on March 12.

Midseason form

Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp continues to look like a player who has made major strides since last season. He hit his fifth home run of the spring, a majestic, three-run shot to left-center off White Sox left-hander John Danks in the fourth inning, but Kemp's most impressive moment might have been his two-out single to center off reliever Tony Pena in the seventh after Kemp fell behind in the count 0-and-2.

That was merely the latest example this spring of Kemp demonstrating a grasp of the game's nuances that might have been lacking in the past.

"I just want to have good at-bats and that's it," said Kemp, who is hitting .320 this spring. "I'm looking for pitches in certain situations, [knowing] where the runners are at, hitting behind [them]. In that last at-bat ... I was looking for something middle and he gave it to me, and I capitalized on it. Those are situations you're going to get into a lot during the season, and something I want to learn how to do better is hit better with two strikes."

Kemp, who came under fire for his defensive play last year after winning a Gold Glove in 2009, also momentarily saved a run by scooping up a base hit by Brent Morel in the fifth and throwing perfectly to catcher Rod Barajas. That forced Alexei Ramirez, who had been running off second, to stop at third.

"We missed a cutoff man there, but it showed some arm strength that we didn't really see this early last year," Mattingly said.

Lilly looks ready

Left-hander Ted Lilly pitched six stellar innings in his penultimate start of the spring, and his final one before the team breaks camp Sunday. Lilly held the White Sox to two runs and six hits, one of them a solo homer by Carlos Quentin that barely got over the wall. He struck out five without a walk.

Although Lilly missed an early start because of illness and was lit up in another start against the Kansas City Royals on March 12, he now appears to be finding his comfort zone.

"Even [against] Kansas City, I felt fine," Lilly said. "My mechanics were a little off, and I was searching for it, but it wasn't anything I felt like I shouldn't be able to work through. That is one of the things in spring training, trying to tighten up all those loose screws, and in my experience, that happens throughout the season, too.

"I would still like to win some of those games where you're not throwing the ball very well but somehow give us a chance on those days, too. I think that is what our staff is going to need to do to give us a chance to win this division."

Short hops

Non-roster infielder Eugenio Velez was walking on crutches after suffering a Grade II ankle sprain running out a bunt single Tuesday. Mattingly said the injury wasn't as severe as team officials originally thought, but that Velez won't be ready to play again for at least a couple of weeks, effectively ending his already fading hopes of making the club. ... Infielder Jamey Carroll, who only now is starting to throw again because of lingering soreness in his right index finger and thus has been limited to minor league games in recent days, finally returned to Cactus League action, pinch hitting for Lance Cormier in the eighth inning and taking a called third strike. ... Mattingly said there would be more cuts before the team breaks camp Sunday. He also said reigning organizational minor league player of the year Jerry Sands, who was reassigned to minor league camp last Thursday, will accompany the team to Los Angeles for next week's three-game exhibition series. The Dodgers' reigning minor league pitcher of the year, Rubby De La Rosa, also will make that trip. He remains in big league camp for now but will be optioned before opening day. ... The Dodgers (11-16-1) host the Colorado Rockies on Thursday. Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda will start for the Dodgers against Jhoulys Chacin.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.