Aaron Miles making an impression
PHOENIX -- Aaron Miles figures it's a combination of two things that has him sitting where he presently sits, which just might be on the verge of capturing an Opening Day roster spot with the Los Angeles Dodgers. First, the veteran infielder is finally, fully healthy after battling right elbow and shoulder injuries for about a year. Second, his eyes have been opened to a whole new way of looking at things.
"I got laser eye surgery this offseason," he said. "I'm seeing the ball better than I ever have. Right away, it was like night and day. My contacts did fine for me, but I had no idea how great other people could see the ball or just see in general."
Miles has been hitting the ball out of sight this spring. He homered for the second time in the Dodgers' Cactus League game on Friday -- a 9-2 loss to the Oakland Athletics before 4,898 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium -- hitting a solo shot over the left-field wall against lefty Gio Gonzalez. By the time Miles left after five innings, he was hitting .364 with a double, a triple, the two homers and, in a testament to just how well he is seeing the ball these days, two strikeouts in 22 at-bats.
Los Angeles Dodgers
So what does all of this mean in the battle for the last utility-infield spot, a spot for which Miles is competing with fellow major league veteran Juan Castro and longtime Dodgers prospects Ivan DeJesus and Justin Sellers? Well, with almost three weeks left until Opening Day, it doesn't appear to mean much of anything yet.
"He has been interesting," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He is one of those guys we are looking at for that one [roster spot]. We're kind of just going to let those guys play and see what goes on."
Miles, 34, has spent at least part of each of the past eight seasons in the majors, including the final four months of last season with the St. Louis Cardinals after they promoted him from their Double-A Springfield (Mo.) affiliate. By that time, Miles said he felt he had finally overcome the arm issues that had derailed him while he was with the Chicago Cubs in 2009, a shoulder strain knocking him out for two weeks and a hyperextended elbow sidelining him for almost seven weeks.
"I had a shoulder injury, and then I ended up hurting my elbow trying to compensate for the shoulder," Miles said. "I didn't totally get over all of that until the middle of last year. ... Right now, I feel good about the way I am playing, and my focus is on making this club. I know I have a good shot. I feel confident I am better than ever as far as the way I am playing and being healthy."
Miles hit a solid .281 in 79 games for the Cardinals after they brought him up last year, but when the offseason came, the offers didn't, at least not to his satisfaction. He says he held off accepting a minor league contract early in the winter in hopes that a better offer would come along. Ultimately, he signed with the Dodgers a week before the start of camp, the only promise from the club being that he would be given every chance to make the club.
When it comes time to set the roster, though, the decision might not be as much about spring-training statistics as what each player vying for that spot brings to the table. Versatility will be a key, and while Miles is primarily a second baseman, he also has considerable experience at short. Most of his innings for the Dodgers this spring have come at third, a position that he has played only 24 games in his big league career but one that figures to be especially important for a Dodgers utility man because third baseman Casey Blake probably will be given at least one day off a week.
Miles also is the only switch hitter among the four players vying for that spot, and he is a contact hitter who has struck out only once every 10.5 plate appearances during his career.
Hitting close to home
Trey Hillman, the new bench coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, speaks with a discernible Texas drawl. But after five seasons spent managing the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, during which he guided them to a pair of Pacific League pennants and one Japan Series title, he might have a little Japanese in him.
Enough of it, at least, to be concerned when he learned of the massive earthquake and accompanying tsunamis that struck Sendai on Friday.
"Thankfully, the team I managed over there is on the road in Tokyo," Hillman said. "It shook pretty good in Tokyo, too, but they're all safe. But I'm a little worried about all the people on the home island of Hokkaido."
Hokkaido is a large island to the north of the Japanese mainland.
Hillman managed the Fighters from 2003-07, then was named manager of the Kansas City Royals in the winter before the 2008 season. The Dodgers hired him as bench coach last fall, after he was fired by the Royals in May.
The Dodgers made three more errors -- by DeJesus, Sellers and minor league camper Christian Lara -- and now have committed a staggering 21 of them in 15 games this spring. DeJesus, who was playing third, also settled for a force on what might have been a double play if he had tried for one, and two foul pops fell untouched in one inning.
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Still, Mattingly insists the team's defensive play isn't something that concerns him. What he wants to see, he has said all spring, is players playing the game the right way, which means running hard, backing up plays and being smart.
"We're doing all that," Mattingly said. "We're also finding out about some guys. The main focus when I came here was to create an environment where guys can play free and be aggressive and where we could be aggressive as a club but also play smart."
Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp hit his second home run of the spring off A's left-hander Jerry Blevins in the sixth inning, a majestic shot that landed atop a small, dirt-and-gravel hill beyond the left-field wall. Kemp went 2-for-3 and is now hitting .364 (8-for-22). Perhaps more important, given that Kemp struck out a career-worst 170 times last season, is the fact he has struck out just twice in the Cactus League. ... Chad Billingsley made his third start for the Dodgers and was roughed up slightly, giving up four earned runs and four hits over 3 1/3 innings, and also walking four batters. However, Billingsley was hurt by a series of defensive miscues behind him. He has a 4.50 ERA. ... Kenley Jansen, last year's rookie sensation who is trying to win a bullpen spot, pitched a perfect sixth inning and still hasn't given up a run in four appearances this spring. ... The Dodgers (5-10) play split-squad games against the Kansas City Royals in Surprise and the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale on Saturday. Most of the team going to Surprise then will fly to Las Vegas for Sunday's exhibition against the Chicago Cubs, while the Scottsdale-bound half of the club will host the Chicago White Sox at Camelback Ranch. Left-hander Ted Lilly will start against Royals right-hander Sean O'Sullivan, and right-hander Tim Redding will go against the Giants and Jonathan Sanchez.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.