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In the Short Run, Izturis Is Tracy's First Choice

March 26, 2002|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Dodger Manager Jim Tracy named Cesar Izturis his opening-day shortstop Monday. No shock there--the 22-year-old has impressed coaches, teammates and front-office executives with his speed, sure hands, strong arm and instincts since the first day of camp.

But in a bit of a surprise, Tracy said the reason Izturis, the Dodgers' sixth opening-day shortstop in six years, won the job over incumbent Alex Cora is he believes Izturis can "bring some energy, some speed and the potential to create more run-scoring opportunities to the top of the lineup."

Once reluctant to use a youngster with 46 games of big-league experience in the highly demanding leadoff spot, Tracy said Monday he is "tinkering with the idea" of batting Izturis first. And if Tracy bats Izturis second--a more likely scenario--Mark Grudzielanek won't be happy.

Grudzielanek is batting .100 (two for 20) this spring and has been slowed by a sore right hamstring, but he hit .271 with 13 homers and 55 runs batted in as the Dodgers' No. 2 hitter last season and believes he should retain that role.

"It's my spot," Grudzielanek said. "If [Izturis] is going to bat leadoff, that's different. But what I've done in the past, what I'm capable of doing ... to [lose] that spot in spring training would be kind of tough. I have no clue what's going to happen. No one has said a word to me."

Where Izturis bats will depend on who plays center field. Tracy wouldn't name a starter Monday, but he will probably go with a platoon of left-handed Dave Roberts and right-handed Marquis Grissom. Roberts would bat leadoff when he starts, but when Grissom plays, the switch-hitting Izturis presumably would lead off.

Izturis, acquired from Toronto in a winter trade, has a .294 on-base percentage in five minor league seasons. He's hitting .293 with a .317 on-base percentage in 18 spring games and has a tendency to hit too many lazy fly balls, but many Dodgers, including Grudzielanek, think he can handle a top-of-the-order role.

"You're probably asking too much [for a first-year player to lead off], but he seems to handle pressure well," Grudzielanek said. "You don't want to put any young guy in a situation where he could flutter a bit, but I don't see that with this kid."

If Izturis struggles, Tracy won't hesitate to replace him with Cora, who will make the team, along with Jeff Reboulet, as utility infielders. Cora had two hits in the Dodgers' 7-2 exhibition loss to Baltimore Monday and is batting .308 (12 for 39) with five RBIs this spring.

"Alex Cora will be an integral part of this team," Tracy said. "He had a great spring and hasn't lost his job, but we feel we're better served to start out with Cesar.... But if we have to make an adjustment to be competitive, we will."

Cora handled his demotion with class.

"I've never been in this situation; I'll have to adjust to it, take it one day at a time and be ready when they call my name," Cora said. "The only thing I can do is what I've done all spring, hit the ball on the ground, play good defense, be aggressive. I've got to accept this role and deal with it."

*

Left-hander Kazuhisa Ishii started for the first time in nine days Monday, giving up one run and five hits, striking out three and walking three in four innings of a triple-A game against the New York Mets. He threw 69 pitches, 40 for strikes, and labored during a 32-pitch fourth.

Ishii suffered a second-inning lapse, giving up a home run and two singles in the span of four pitches, but he did strike out two with the bases loaded to end the fourth.

"I need to concentrate more during the season," Ishii said, adding that a recent chat with fellow Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo helped. "Nomo said when I'm throwing the ball well, I have a tendency to relax, take my time. When my pitches are out of the strike zone, I tend to rush things."

Ishii's next start will be Sunday against Seattle in Safeco Field, the Dodgers' final tuneup before the April 2 season opener. Ishii has had trouble controlling his nerves this spring, and the Dodgers hope an exhibition game in a major league stadium will help get him acclimated to the U.S.

"That will be a tremendous experience, to pitch in a big league situation with a big crowd," Ishii said. "I don't want to let my teammates down."

There has been some concern that if Ishii is nervous during Grapefruit League games, he might not respond well to the pressure of Dodger Stadium.

"If I have anxiety during the season, I won't be able to win," Ishii said. "I have to push that out of my mind so I can win. I have to concentrate on baseball only and not worry about other things."

As Ishii spoke Monday, he had ice packs wrapped around his back, left shoulder, elbow, knee and ankle. But he said there is no cause for concern.

"This is all regular, there is no pain," Ishii said. "Do not worry, because I was born in a cold place."

*

Probable opening-day starter Kevin Brown will start a split-squad game in Florida on Thursday. Nomo will start a split-squad game in Las Vegas on Thursday night against Arizona. The season-opening rotation will probably be Brown, Nomo, Odalis Perez, Andy Ashby and Ishii.... Converted starter Eric Gagne prepped for his probable closing role by striking out two in an inning of hitless relief Monday. He'll throw another inning tonight against the Mets.

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