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Monday, February 24
Castilla, DeRosa jostling for opportunity to play third

Associated Press

Atlanta Braves: The biggest question at Braves camp usually goes something like: Who's going to be the backup middle infielder? That's what makes third base so interesting.

Vinny Castilla

Vinny Castilla, an established player coming off a miserable season, returns for another year with the Braves. During infield practice, however, he's sharing grounders with up-and-comer Mark DeRosa. The Braves are giving the 27-year-old infielder every chance to become a regular -- even if it means sending Castilla to the bench.

"I'm going to push to get an everyday job," said DeRosa, a backup the last two seasons.

DeRosa hit .297 with five homers and 23 RBI last season, though he was limited to 72 games by an ankle injury. Castilla, bothered by a sore wrist, hit just .232 with 12 homers and 61 RBI in 143 games.

"I didn't hit the way I know I can hit, but we had a great year as a team," Castilla, 35, said. "Winning cures everything."

Heading into the final year of his contract, the two-time All-Star isn't ready to concede his job to a younger player. He intends to be the starter on Opening Day.

The Braves' signing of Castilla before the 2002 season required Chipper Jones to move to left. Castilla made only six errors and set a franchise record for third basemen with a .982 fielding percentage. But the club also knows it must upgrade its offensive production at the corners of the infield. No NL team got fewer homers from its first and third basemen last season than Atlanta's 32.

Robert Fick, an All-Star with Detroit last season, was signed to upgrade first base. While DeRosa isn't the classic power hitter, the Braves are impressed with his offensive potential. He had a .429 slugging percentage last season, while Castilla's .348 was the worst among Atlanta's starters.

Texas Rangers: Juan Gonzalez suited up and took part in agility drills Monday in Surprise, Ariz., but then was kept out of the rest of the Texas Rangers' workout due to a continued problem with his back.

"He was ready to go, and I probably would have played him if there was a game,'' said manager Buck Showalter. "At this point it's just better to let him rest.''

"It's just a little tight right here,'' Gonzalez said, pointing to the left side of his lower back. "It's a little uncomfortable, but I'll be fine.''

The Rangers will play an intrasquad game Tuesday in the main stadium, weather permitting.

"If it rains, we'll play a simulated game in the cages,'' Showalter said. "It really depends on the weather.''

Chan Ho Park will be one of the starters against either John Koronka or Joaquin Benoit.

New York Yankees: Hideki Matsui went 0-for-2 in his first intrasquad game. The three-time MVP of Japan's Central League started in left field Monday and hit fifth for the "Gators," which included the regular starters.

Matsui's first at-bat, against minor league pitcher Alex Graman, came with runners on first and second and two outs in the first. One fan yelled "come on Godzilla" before Matsui took a pitch high for ball one.

On a 2-0 pitch, Matsui grounded out to first baseman Fernando Seguignol, who played in Japan last season and has the adjoining locker in the Legends Field clubhouse.

Matsui's second at-bat came as the leadoff hitter in the fourth. He hit a high pop fly on an 1-0 pitch by minor leaguer Jason Anderson that was caught in shallow right by Marcus Thames.

Henson staying focused: Drew Henson reconfirmed Monday that his future is in baseball, even though he remains eligible for the NFL draft in late April.

The Yankees had originally hoped the former Michigan quarterback would have been ready to play third base at Yankee Stadium this season.

But struggles at Triple-A Columbus last year put those plans on hold and fueled speculation again that a pro football career might instead be ahead for Henson.

"I'm not going to go play football,'' Henson said. "I get defensive probably more so than at first. It offends me because people will think, 'Well, he made a decision and now he's going to switch back.' That's not the type of person I am.''

Henson hit .240 with 18 homers and 65 RBI in 128 games last year at Columbus, striking out 151 times in 471 at-bats. He also made his major league debut, striking out in his only official at-bat, and scoring a run.

Henson gave up football when he signed a $17 million, six-year contract in 2001.

"I want to be in New York and I want to help contribute,'' Henson said. "Until I'm playing every day in the big leagues, football is going to be an issue. People are always going to wonder because that's what fans do.''

San Diego Padres: Second baseman Homer Bush told the San Diego Padres on Monday that he is retiring, ending his attempt to make the squad as a non-roster invitee.

Bush, 30, was troubled by pain in both hips. He had surgery on his right hip near the end of the 2000 season.

"I could tell watching him field balls and hit that he was not comfortable,'' Padres general manager Kevin Towers said. "I didn't know he was in that much pain. He didn't have the same range I remember Homer having. Even swinging the bat, he wasn't able to turn on balls or swing his hips.''

Towers said Bush might try a comeback next year if his hips feel better.

Bush split last season between the Toronto Blue Jays and Florida Marlins. He batted .231 in 78 at-bats with Toronto and .222 in 54 at-bats with Florida. Combined, Bush played 63 games and batted .227 with one home run and seven RBI.

In six major league seasons with the New York Yankees, Toronto and Florida, Bush batted .287 with 11 home runs, 115 RBI and 64 stolen bases in 400 games.

The Padres signed him to a minor league contract Dec. 13, but Bush was a long shot to beat out Keith Lockhart as the backup middle infielder.

Bush was drafted by the Padres in 1991 but never played a game in the big leagues with San Diego. He was traded to the Yankees in 1997 in the deal involving negotiation rights to pitcher Hideki Irabu.

"He's a class act,'' Towers said. "If he wanted to get into coaching or scouting, he's somebody this organization would have a great interest in.''

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