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Infield depth turns into TJ's first foe

Starters up in the air for Friday opener

With Opening Night two days away, Southern Oregon Timberjacks manager Greg Sparks is worried he might not have enough infielders to make it through the first weekend of the Northwest League season.

There are plenty of pitchers, albeit most of them are right-handers. There are four outfielders, including a lefty-righty combination in right field. Catching is well in hand. But the infield challenges the second-year Timberjacks manager faces was enough to preoccupy him during dinner Tuesday night.

I wrote it down on a napkin, Sparks says of his depth chart. I don't know what we're going to do if someone goes down.

The problem isn't up the middle, where there is plenty of experience at second and shortstop, or at first base, where Jeremy Schied and Jorge Soto give Southern Oregon power on both sides of the plate.

The problem is that no one who had been with Sparks at extended spring training in Arizona or drafted and signed by the Oakland Athletics had third base written all over them.

Brad Henderson, a second baseman from Tupelo, Miss., has been the chief candidate through the first week of camp.

Moments later, as if the powers that be in the Oakland organization were letting Sparks know they hadn't forgotten him, TJ's trainer Jeff Collins confirms Jason Clements, a shortstop drafted out of Oral Roberts University in the 19th round, is in town.

There's my third baseman, Sparks grins with a nod of approval.

Friday night that might not be true. But Sparks, nonetheless is relieved to have another body taking infield when he breaks out his fungo bat.

Henderson figures one spot in the field is as good as another.

It's been a while since I played third base, he says. I played third my freshman year (at Mississippi). Hitting is what got me here. If they want me to play third, that's what I'm going to do.

There are a lot of questions to be answered in the final hours before Southern Oregon squares off against the Eugene Emeralds Friday night.

Outside of his leadoff hitter, Sparks isn't sure who'll be where in the batting order.

Carlos Rosario is going to play second base and leadoff and that's as far as I've got, Sparks says.

He's a switcher-hitter and an on-base guy. He's got a great ability to steal bases. He's not the fastest guy in the world, but he knows how to read pitchers. He stole 18 bases in 12 games (during extended spring training) down in Arizona and I've got big plans for the guy. He's going to be exciting.

Sparks anticipates more power throughout the lineup than a year ago when the Timberjacks tied for the Southern Division title but missed the playoffs because Salem-Keizer owned the tie-breaker.

League MVP Jason Hart, Jesus Basabe and Eric rnes accounted for 41 of the team's 68 home runs in 1998.

Last year, we had two, maybe three guys who could pop the ball out of the park, Sparks says. We're going to be improved there. I've been losing a lot of balls during batting practice.

Soto, Schied, Aaron Nieckula, Kirk Asche, Jamie Porter and Matt Forbes have all demonstrated home run swings.

If the Timberjacks indeed produce a murderers row, their pitching staff will appreciate the support.

Pitching coach Gil Lopez says he will rely on pitchers who were in extended spring to start the first four games.

Unless they were in regional playoffs, most of these guys haven't thrown in a month, Lopez says. I'm going to treat the drafted guys like it was Day 1, minimize their counts and ride the guys from Arizona.

Lopez announced Franklin German (2-1, 6.13 ERA last year in the Arizona League) will start the opener at Civic Stadium, followed by Alex (formerly Jose) Negron (1-0, 6.00) and Eric Meeks (2-1, 4.60) on Saturday and Sunday. Shane Bazzell (4-2, 2.37) will start the home opener against Boise next Monday.

Only Boise allowed fewer walks than the Timberjacks in 1998 and Lopez hopes for similar success this summer.

We're not going to have any overpowering arms, Lopez says. Hopefully, we can minimize the number of pitches to each hitter. We didn't go deep into counts and we were the aggressor. If you get a strike on a 1-1 count, you're going to be in control. If you throw a ball, the batter is going to be in control the rest of the at-bat.

There are 26 players on the roster, although comings and goings are the general rule in short-season A ball.

Sparks says the season will be akin to basic training for the Timberjacks.

I learned not to take anything for granted, Sparks says. I've been in this game since 1984 and hadn't been at this level for a while. Things I thought players would know, they didn't.

Things like how to tie their shoes, basically.

Alex Negron, who is scheduled to be on the mound Saturday in Eugene, winds up for a pitch during Wednesday's workout. - Photo by Jim Craven