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SPRING REPORT / DODGERS 6, FLORIDA 2

Back end of this deal looking better

March 24, 2007|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

JUPITER, FLA. — If it's less about how a team starts than how it finishes, the Dodgers might be all right.

The four relievers they will count on to navigate the late innings and protect leads retired the last 10 batters in a 6-2 victory over the Florida Marlins on Friday at Roger Dean Stadium that ended a five-game losing streak.

Joe Beimel relieved starter Derek Lowe with two out in the fifth and retired Mike Jacobs after Miguel Cabrera reached on an error. Then Takashi Saito, Jonathan Broxton and Chad Billingsley each breezed through an inning.

"They look like they are ready," Manager Grady Little said.

The Dodgers had scored three runs in 45 innings when they exploded for five in the fifth inning. The big blast came from Larry Bigbie, who hit a three-run home run and continued his push for a roster spot.

Shortstop Wilson Valdez was two for two with two stolen bases to raise his batting average to .382, yet some in the Dodgers front office still aren't convinced the 28-year-old career minor leaguer could be a suitable replacement if Rafael Furcal's ankle injury lingers into the regular season.

Lowe continued to look better than any other Dodgers starter, sailing through 5 2/3 innings after giving up two doubles to begin the game, then going to the bullpen to throw another 20 pitches and bring his total to 89.

Kuo can't go

Any lingering doubt that Hong-Chih Kuo would begin the season anywhere but in the minor leagues was erased when an MRI exam of his ailing left shoulder showed inflammation.

Kuo probably won't pitch again this spring, and his last two outings didn't create the impression he hoped to leave with Little. He walked four and threw three wild pitches Wednesday against the New York Mets in his last start and gave up three home runs in a rain-shortened outing against the Boston Red Sox a week ago.

Just as troubling was his lack of candor. Kuo felt discomfort in the shoulder after the outing against the Red Sox but told no one. After struggling with his command and reaching only 88 mph with his fastball against the Mets, he came clean with the training staff.

"It's human nature," Little said of Kuo's hiding the injury for five days. "He's trying to win a job. You try to get them to be as honest as possible, but you can't read their minds."

Kuo, who pitched solely from the stretch position the last several seasons, experimented with a windup this spring but shelved it before the start against the Red Sox. Little said the windup had nothing to do with Kuo's shoulder pain.

Add Abreu to the mix

Top prospect Tony Abreu, a second baseman most of his minor league career, will play shortstop against the Baltimore Orioles today. The move is clearly linked to Furcal's questionable availability for opening day.

Abreu has considerably more potential than the other players who could fill in at shortstop: Valdez, veteran utility infielder Ramon Martinez and prospect Chin-Lung Hu.

Hu is projected as the triple-A shortstop, with Abreu playing second base. But scouts predict that Abreu will one day be an everyday major league player while questions persist about Hu's ability to hit consistently.

The Dodgers have no plans to move Nomar Garciaparra from first base to shortstop, even though he has years of experience there. His offensive production is crucial to their power-challenged lineup and the Dodgers fear that such a move would increase his chance of injury and detract from his offense.

Furcal's status

The swelling in Furcal's left ankle had subsided significantly by Friday morning. He will have an MRI exam in the next day or so to determine whether there is any ligament damage.

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steve.henson@latimes.com

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