- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Juan Uribe, the versatile infielder the Los Angeles Dodgers signed last winter to be their everyday second baseman, started at third base for the first time this spring in one of Saturday's Cactus League split-squad games, a 19-7 loss to the Kansas City Royals before 5,451 at Surprise Stadium.
That decision by manager Don Mattingly would seem timely by the end of the first inning because of an unforeseen development way over on the other side of the Phoenix metro area.
Third baseman Casey Blake left the other game -- an 8-7 loss to the San Francisco Giants before 12,081 at Scottsdale Stadium -- because of tightness in his lower back almost immediately after laying down a sacrifice bunt in the top of the first inning.
Blake was sidelined just five days because of a similar injury last June, so it didn't sound like the kind of thing that could knock him out for Opening Day. But it did underscore the fact Blake is 37 and that Uribe probably can plan on at least the occasional start at third this season whenever Mattingly wants to rest Blake to keep him fresh.
"For me, [that] is OK," Uribe said. "Whatever the manager wants from me, I am more than happy to do it."
Uribe went 2 for 3 at the plate, driving an RBI double to the center-field wall in the first inning and singling to left in the third, with both of those hits off Royals right-hander Sean O'Sullivan. But for Uribe, whom the Dodgers signed to a three-year, $21 million free-agent deal last winter, the spring has been a struggle so far -- those two hits doubled his total, and he still is hitting just .235 (4 for 17).
Spring-training statistics, though, especially for veteran players, are basically meaningless. And besides, Uribe looked like a natural at third, where he went to his knees and reached across his body to stab a smoking liner from Melky Cabrera just an inch or two above the dirt -- and possibly rob Cabrera of a double -- to end the first inning.
Although the Dodgers already have Uribe penciled in at second, his versatility will be a key in a lineup where Blake and shortstop Rafael Furcal will be handled with care. Uribe, 31, can play second, third and short, and he figures to have at least a decent amount of time at all three. He has played 154 games in his career at third, by far the fewest among his three positions, and his best position is probably shortstop, where he played exclusively for the Chicago White Sox from 2005 to '07.
"That is my best position," Uribe said. "But second base, third base, any of those are OK. I'm ready to play any position they want me to play."
Mattingly said he doesn't necessarily need to see a lot of Uribe at short and third this spring to be comfortable going into the season.
"I'm not too concerned about too much of it, but just enough for him to be comfortable with it," Mattingly said. "He has been taking some ground balls [during workouts]. He is a surprising guy [defensively]. For as big as he is, he has that quick little action to the ball that he takes. And offensively, he seems more comfortable. Early on, he struggled a little bit, but that was early on."
On an afternoon when veteran starter Ted Lilly wasn't at his best and reached his allotted 60 pitches (59, to be exact) with two outs in the third inning against the Royals, it basically was open season on a trio of Dodgers relievers who are among those battling for what probably are three openings in the bullpen.
Non-roster left-hander Ron Mahay, a big league veteran whom club officials had hoped could be a situational guy, was torched for four earned runs in two-thirds of an inning, stretching his already-bloated spring ERA to 17.18. Ramon Troncoso, who hadn't given up a run in any of his four previous appearances, this time gave up four of them in 1 2/3 innings. And non-roster right-hander Oscar Villareal, another major league veteran who last pitched in the majors for the Houston Astros in 2008, also gave up four in 1 1/3, leaving him with a 12.71 ERA. He also has walked four batters in 5 2/3 innings.
Meanwhile, yet another non-roster veteran, right-hander Roman Colon, coughed up the other game in the ninth, the Giants getting to him for two runs on four hits in two-thirds of an inning. Like Troncoso, though, those were the first earned runs Colon has allowed this spring.
But the thing is, it's getting late. The Dodgers may start whittling their camp roster after their split-squad games Sunday, although non-roster guys with big league experience tend to be among the final cutdowns.
"We'll keep looking [at them]," Mattingly said. "Again, sometimes you have to give guys the benefit of the doubt and see how they bounce back and things like that. But as we move along farther, the [available] innings get shorter."
The right approach
It was another good day for center fielder Matt Kemp, who went 1 for 3 with an RBI double against the Royals and now is hitting .370 for the spring. He also swiped third base in the first inning, leaving him three for four on steal attempts.
Still, it was something more subtle that Kemp did that caught Mattingly's attention.
"That double he hit, he was thinking triple all the way," Mattingly said. "You could see it in his eyes. He shut it down [at second], which he should have. But that is what I have been talking about with him, thinking three until the [outfielder] stops you. I liked that.''
The Dodgers made their second cut of the spring Friday, optioning pitcher Luis Vasquez, who was added this winter to the 40-man roster, to minor league camp. Dana Eveland, a non-roster pitcher who never appeared in a game because of an injury, was reassigned several days ago. Mattingly said there won't be any more cuts until after this weekend, when the Dodgers have split-squad dates both days. ... Tony Gwynn Jr. had three hits against the Giants, and Andre Ethier went 2 for 4 with a triple and three RBIs. ... Trent Oeltjen, who replaced Kemp in center field in the fifth inning against the Royals, went 2 for 2 with a monstrous solo homer onto the roof of a party tent atop the right-field berm against reliever Danny Duffy. Oeltjen, who is almost certain to begin the season at Triple-A Albuquerque because of the glut of outfielders the Dodgers have in camp, is hitting .364 (4 for 11). Corey Smith, a first baseman the Dodgers borrowed from minor league camp for the day, also homered off Royals reliever Kanekoa Texeira. ...The Dodgers (5-12) have another split-squad Sunday, with one of those games in Las Vegas, where top pitching prospect Rubby De La Rosa will oppose Chicago Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano. Meanwhile, back at the (Camelback) Ranch, the Dodgers will host the Chicago White Sox, with Hiroki Kuroda facing Sox lefty John Danks.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.