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03/21/09 1:56 AM ET

Fifth-starter battle full of twists

While Milton struggles in relief of Vargas, Lindblom lights up night

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Fifth-starter candidates Claudio Vargas and Eric Milton were upstaged Friday night by the new kid in the clubhouse -- and a new challenger for the job -- Josh Lindblom.

Could the 21-year-old Lindblom, with a total of 34 professional innings under his belt, actually have a shot at winning the job?

"He does for me," manager Joe Torre said. "He throws a lot of strikes and he doesn't back down. That's exciting for me."

After two scoreless innings Monday got him a surprise promotion to Major League camp, Lindblom added two more scoreless innings against Kansas City, flashing a 94-mph fastball, a consistent changeup and a curveball good enough for a called third strike -- marking one of his three strikeouts Friday. The right-hander has four strikeouts in four innings without issuing a walk.

"I've seen him three times, and you think you're going to see a change in the fact he's dressing and showering with the other big league players, and he stepped it up a bit," Torre said. "He has a real good changeup. His curveball is the one that he is the least consistent with. The changeup is pretty consistent. He gets [the fastball] up on you in a hurry."

Torre also took delight in a little gamesmanship between Lindblom and Royals catcher Miguel Olivo in the bottom of the seventh inning, when Lindblom came inside twice on Olivo with two strikes. Olivo glared at Lindblom after the second one, then took a 93 mph called third strike down the middle.

So just like that, Lindblom -- a second-round pick last year out of Purdue University -- is in the mix with Vargas, Milton, Eric Stults and Shawn Estes for the fifth-starter job because none of the others have stepped forward to win it with a little more than two weeks to go until the season starts. Torre said he's willing to wait on deciding "until we run out of dates."

Vargas started for the Dodgers and allowed one run on three hits over three innings, making 60 pitches and adding another 15 afterward in the bullpen. He was clocked at 93 mph.

"He threw strikes and stayed strong," Torre said. "It was one of his best outings."

Knocked around for seven earned runs his two previous outings, Vargas credited the improvement on a mechanical adjustment by pitching coach Rick Honeycutt that Vargas implemented with "shadow" work -- when the pitcher goes through the pitching motion without throwing a ball.

"I'm trying to stay back and finish my pitches, and I think it worked," Vargas said. "We started after my last outing. I told him I was doing something wrong, and he told me what he sees from the dugout. I just jump a little, especially from the stretch, and throw pitches up in the strike zone. Tonight, the first two innings especially, I threw a lot of pitches down and pounded the strike zone."

Vargas said he's confident he can handle the fifth-starter role.

"I did it before, I think I can do it again and do better," Vargas said. "I feel more comfortable."

Milton also allowed one earned run over three innings, but it looked a lot worse -- as he actually allowed eight runs, though seven were unearned due to a pair of errors, one of them his. He gave up six hits, including one home run and two doubles. It was his second consecutive shaky outing, and the third such performance in his past four appearances.

"You know, in that inning, we didn't play very well behind him," Torre said. "But he got hit pretty hard."

Before the game, Torre said Chin-lung Hu "has jumped into the fray" for a utility-infielder job with his strong spring. In addition to Hu, contenders for other jobs are Blake DeWitt, Juan Castro, Doug Mientkiewicz and Hector Luna. Torre said the dilemma in keeping young players like Hu and DeWitt around is trying to get them enough playing time to continue their development. DeWitt had three hits in the game.

Hu and Castro are right-handed hitters, and DeWitt and Mientkiewicz are left-handed hitters. Mark Loretta, a right-handed hitter, is on the club as the primary utility man.

Torre hasn't decided how many infielders he will carry, but he might go with only four outfielders (Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Juan Pierre) because Casey Blake and Mientkiewicz can play the outfield. Torre likes Mientkiewicz because of his "grinder" mentality and as an experienced left-handed bat off the bench. Castro would be kept almost entirely for defensive purposes.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.