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INDIANS Trio set for battle at third base slot



Published: Sat, March 8, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Casey Blake, Greg LaRocca and Bill Selby all want the starting position.

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) -- Third base has turned from the hot corner into the torrid triangle at the Cleveland Indians' spring camp.

Casey Blake, Greg LaRocca and Bill Selby are waging a three-way battle to replace the retired Travis Fryman.

"It's hard to root against the other two because they're such great guys," LaRocca said Friday before an exhibition game against Atlanta. "We all work together, but we all want the job."

All three have impressive minor league credentials, but have yet to break through in limited big league trials.

"Sometimes it can just be a matter of being at the right place at the right time," said Blake, who signed with Cleveland in December. "When Travis left, I thought Cleveland could be that right place for me."

The 29-year-old Blake was blocked by Corey Koskie at Minnesota and by Tony Batista in Toronto and then again in Baltimore in previous short big league stints.

Blake has hot bat

He has homered twice and batted .643 with seven RBIs over his first six games this spring, but manager Eric Wedge maintains the job is up for grabs.

"Nothing's been decided, everything is the same it was on the first day of camp," Wedge said. "This is one of those decisions that could go down to the last day of camp."

Infield and bench coach Buddy Bell, who played third base for 18 major league seasons, has worked with all three and does not see a clear-cut favorite, either.

"Obviously we like them all or they wouldn't even be here," Bell said. "They do have similar skills and it might just be a case of whoever is playing the best when we break camp."

At some point, a fourth contender could emerge.

The Indians had planned to move Ricky Gutierrez over from second base, but the veteran is still recovering from surgery to fuse two veterbrae in his neck last October.

"Ricky is doing well in workouts, progressing every day, but is still a long way from being ready," Wedge said.

20 rookies on roster

With 20 rookies on the 40-man roster, Wedge will have several decisions and many will be predicated upon one another.

"We have to see how it plays out at second base between John McDonald and Brandon Phillips first," Wedge said.

If the highly-touted rookie Phillips wins that job, McDonald would return to his utility infielder role. But if McDonald starts at second, then two third basemen could be kept.

Selby's skills come into play in that situation. The 32-year-old, who batted .299 for Wedge at Triple-A Buffalo last year, has also played second, first and the outfield and has a .356 career average as a pinch-hitter in 171 games in the majors.

"I'm just here getting ready for whatever they want me to do," Selby said. "Starting would be best, but if they need me somewhere else, I'll do that. I just want to play in Cleveland."

LaRocca has longest odds

LaRocca is battling the longest odds, but is still excited about his opportunity.

"To start opening day would be unbelievable, the best thing in my career," said the 30-year-old who has played 34 games in the majors in nine professional seasons. "At least the best so far."

LaRocca said he intends to make the most of his opportunity.

"I put on weight and got a lot stronger," said the 5-foot-11 veteran who is now at about 200 pounds.

"The good news is I've got more pop and driving the ball better, which is what they said they were looking for, but I also have 20 pounds on my back and I have to get my quickness back in the field."

That's something also being worked on by Selby.

"Improving my footwork and staying on my toes is what I'm really working on," Selby said. "I don't want to be flat-footed and by moving I get into better position to field and better position to make a good throw.

"Little things like that could make the difference."




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