Notes: Kuo needs to step up

Notes: Kuo needs to step up

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Because he has a remarkably electric left arm, but because that arm has an elbow twice reconstructed and not fond of relieving, the unspoken assumption around Dodgertown this spring has been that the fifth starter's job is Hong-Chih Kuo's to lose.

Which, it now seems, he's in the process of doing.

Friday's anticipated all-Asian matchup with Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka was washed out in the third inning, but the image of Kuo serving up three home runs in 12 batters faced can't be erased.

Even worse, he walked Matsuzaka on a 3-2 pitch, even though the Japanese sensation was told not to swing and everybody knew it, including Kuo.

"I think he's tough to pitch to," Dodgers manager Grady Little said of Matsuzaka, lightening the mood after the disappointing performance by Kuo.

"He just got a couple of balls up to the wrong guys and they hit it pretty good," Little said of the home runs by Eric Hinske, Jason Varitek and Wily Mo Pena. "He struggled with his command. From the first day, he hasn't had any difficulty. I think he was due."

Little was being kind in that Kuo, despite a 1.50 ERA, also came into this game having walked six in six innings. Last spring, when Kuo made the Opening Day roster, he had one walk and 14 strikeouts in 12 innings.

Kuo wasn't originally scheduled to start this game, but the Dodgers shifted Brad Penny to a Minor League simulated game, allowing Kuo to warm up like a starter. They also told him he could pitch out of the stretch (which he did) if that felt more comfortable, after trying this spring to have him pitch out of a windup.

None of that helped on a windy and, eventually, drenching day. Kuo, a fly ball and strikeout pitcher, said his fastball was staying up.

"In these conditions, you need to force ground balls and he's never been that good of a ground-ball pitcher," said catcher Russell Martin. "I've always thought he takes a couple of innings to get the feel and release point, and then he's really hard to hit."

If Friday's stats counted, Kuo's ERA would have soared to 6.48. Brett Tomko, the apparent front-runner for the fifth job, is at 1.29. Mark Hendrickson is at 4.63 after pitching five scoreless innings on Thursday. Joe Mays is at 2.57 and Eric Stults is at 5.14.

What happens to Kuo if he doesn't win the job could get interesting. Most observers are in agreement that he's not cut out for relief and he has options remaining, so he could be sent back to the Minor Leagues.

More pitching updates: Takashi Saito dodged the swarm of Asian media by throwing two innings of a simulated game against Minor League hitters. He, Jonathan Broxton and Joe Beimel are scheduled to pitch on consecutive days for the first time next week.

Pitchers scheduled to follow Kuo on Friday -- Stults, Broxton, Rudy Seanez and Tim Hamulack -- instead threw in the covered batting cages.

Repko's roster spot: Although Jason Repko's groin injury is improving, his greatest asset is running speed and the Dodgers are not sure he will start the season on the active roster.

"We don't know a date for his return, but we do know, like last year's ankle injury, speed is his game and if he's not fully ready in that area, then he's not ready," said Little. "We won't be pushing him or rushing the process. Without his No. 1 tool, he doesn't mean as much to this team."

After participating in outfield drills and running at about half-speed, Repko wasn't ready to rule out Opening Day.

"There's still two weeks and it's feeling better every day," Repko said. "It couldn't have gone any better today. Tomorrow, we might add curves and in a couple days run the bases. I'm looking at the bright side."

A high ankle sprain sidelined Repko for 2 1/2 months last year. As the fourth outfielder, he can play all three outfield positions, but center field is the most demanding of the three. If something were to happen to starter Juan Pierre, the expected roster is thin with experienced center fielders.

The intriguing dark horse candidate to emerge with a shot at making the club in Repko's absence is Wilson Valdez, who spent all of 2006 playing shortstop at Triple-A Las Vegas. Valdez is not only having a huge spring offensively -- .368 with six extra-base hits -- but he's versatile enough to play just about everywhere, including center field, which he's done for 18 innings. And he is out of options, another motivation to have him on the 25-man roster. Valdez has played second base, third base, shortstop, center field and left field this spring.

Miller optioned: Left-handed reliever Greg Miller showed he was healthy this spring, but was optioned on Friday to work on his control as a starting pitcher. The No. 2 prospect in the organization before two shoulder operations, according to Baseball America, Miller allowed five runs in eight spring innings with three walks and hit four batters. He threw harder than he did a year ago, but not as hard as he did before his operations.

"He has a gifted arm and he'll learn more by starting and pitching more innings," Little said of Miller, who became a reliever after his surgery to protect his shoulder. "We feel he's not that far away."

Miller said the decision was "definitely understandable."

"I'm glad I was able to show the stuff the way it was before," said Miller. "Maybe I need a few tweaks with control and all that. I feel [reaching the Major Leagues] coming sooner rather than later. A lot of veteran guys threw really well this spring. If they make the call in April, I want to be one of the first guys up. In those years of rehab, there were times I looked in the rear-view mirror and wondered if it was all worth it. Now, I feel like maybe it was. I'm close to the ultimate goal."

Job Fair: The Dodgers will host the 12th Annual Community Job Fair on Saturday at 10 a.m. PT at Dodger Stadium. Last year, some 2,500 job seekers from throughout Southern California gathered at the stadium to meet potential employers. This year's Job Fair features training providers, government agencies and employers including: Bally Total Fitness, Federal Express, Macy's, NBC Universal, Sears, Primerica, Southern California Gas Company, United States Secret Service, University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Coming up: Tomko, who has a good shot, and Mays, who is a long shot, continue the competition for the fifth starter's spot on Saturday at 10 a.m. when they pitch against the Houston Astros in Vero Beach, Fla. The game will be broadcast on KCAL-9 for the first time this spring. Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully begins his 58th season behind the microphone. Brian Mohler will start for Houston.

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