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WSI News - News Watch

Notebook: Johnson's catching on

By Jimmy Greenfield,

PHOENIX -- Not only does it appear likely that Mark Johnson has beaten out Josh Paul for the White Sox backup catcher's job, manager Jerry Manuel hinted Wednesday that Johnson might even get the nod to catch Mark Buehrle on Opening Day at Seattle.

Manuel didn't directly say the left-handed-hitting Johnson, whom Paul beat out last spring for the backup job, has made the team, though he did discuss why Johnson would be a better candidate to face Seattle's Freddy Garcia, the Opening Day starter for the Mariners.

"Mark Johnson has had a real good spring even though he injured his (hamstring)," Manuel said. "He might be a better matchup for Garcia than Alomar. That's something that we'll have to decide too next week."

The health of Sandy Alomar, Jr., the presumed starting catcher, has been in question throughout camp as he's struggled with hamstring and shoulder problems. He's only appeared in 7 games but has hit well (.438, 7-for-16) when he's been on the field.

Johnson, a better defensive catcher than Paul, hit his fourth double of the spring Wednesday and kept his average well above .400, where it has been from the beginning of Cactus League play. Paul got off to a good start but has seen his average dip below .300.

If Alomar isn't healthy, Manuel said he has no problem having Johnson and Paul share the catching duties. Fortunately for Alomar, there don't seem to be any current issues with his knees, which have gone through 10 surgeries between them.

"He's an older guy that's had a number of operations," Manuel said of Alomar. "We can't really expect or anticipate him to carry the bulk of catching. I don't think it would be fair to him."

Manuel didn't rule out beginning the season with three catchers though that appears unlikely if the Sox decide to carry 12 pitchers. Both Sox general manager Ken Williams and Manuel have said that is under consideration.

"That's a strong possibility," Manuel said. "Because of youth and the guys coming back from the arm injuries, to protect them somewhat. That would be the biggest thing."

Even with Dan Wright being knocked around during Wednesday's Cactus League game, the starting rotation that Manuel will reveal on Friday is likely set. Buehrle, Todd Ritchie and Wright will start against the Mariners, with Jon Garland on the mound for the opener of a three-game series in Kansas City on April 5.

The plan also has Jon Rauch getting in at least one relief appearance before making his first career start on April 9 at Detroit.

The bullpen will include Keith Foulke, Gary Glover, Antonio Osuna, Bob Howry, Lorenzo Barcelo and Kelly Wunsch. If a 12th pitcher is carried it could be left-hander Mike Porzio, who had five straight scoreless outings before giving up a pair of runs on Tuesday.

"He's a candidate," Manuel said of Porzio.

After Friday, there won't be any more candidates. Only survivors.

"Everybody's looking forward to it," Wright said.

BETTER DAYS AHEAD: The last three Cactus League outings by Rauch, Garland and Wright have produced 27 hits and 21 runs in only 12 1/3 innings.

The light air in Arizona has taken a beating in the last week in an attempt to diffuse concern over the performances by the back end of the Sox's starting rotation. Wright would have none of it.

"Out here in Arizona sometimes people talk about how the ball carries and all that," Wright said. "But you still got to pitch and you still got to go out and do the best job you can."

Wright started 12 games last season after being called up from Triple-A Charlotte in July and went 5-3 with a 5.83 ERA. The Sox used a strategy with Wright that they plan to employ with Rauch, which is to have him pitch in relief at least once before sending him out to start his first Major League game.

Wright gave up one hit and one run in three innings of relief against Boston on July 27.

"It helped as far as getting the nervousness out and everything," he said. "But I was still nervous the next time. I don't know if it helped or not. It was good to get in the game."

DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Willie Harris led off Thursday's game with a walk, stole second base and moved to third on an errant throw by the catcher. He then scored easily on Royce Clayton's single.

In short, he did nothing that he hasn't been doing all spring.

Harris was acquired from Baltimore for Chris Singleton and has surpassed even the loftiest expectations. His average has hovered around .300, he's had five bunt singles and even has three homers, tied for second-best on the team, to go along with 12 RBIs.

If Brian Simmons makes the team as a reserve outfielder instead of Harris it will be because he's considered a better defensive outfielder. Harris's only real downside, if it can be called that, has been fielding, where he's had three errors, including two throwing miscues as a second baseman.

Also hurting Harris's chances are if the Sox take 12 pitchers. In that scenario, it would be hard for either Simmons or Harris to make the club if either Jeff Liefer and Aaron Rowand aren't traded for pitching help.

"We've watched (Harris) a lot," Manuel said. "He's played a lot. He's been impressive. That will be a tough decision but that will be a last minute type of thing. He's played extremely well."

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