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DH, 1st base turn into juggling act for Torre

Need to keep both fresh and healthy might result in even split between Nick Johnson, Jason Giambi.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2003

NEW YORK -- Jason Giambi always has contended that he hits better when he plays first base. "It matters," Giambi said, "because it gets me a little more in the flow of the game."

Giambi is in the second year of a seven-year, $120-million contract. He has seniority and a track record. But the Yankees are trying to groom Nick Johnson, and last season they discovered the same applies to him.

Johnson also prefers playing first, and he has trouble handling the designated-hitter role.

Giambi has started at DH in five of nine games. Until Thursday, Johnson had not been the starting DH since opening night.

Manager Joe Torre can envision a 50-50 split between Giambi's starts in the field and Johnson's. That would be more than last season, when Giambi made 92 starts at first and Johnson 59. The idea, Torre said, is to make Johnson more comfortable.

"A lot of it is for Nick's sake," Torre said. "I think Nick would have a little more going for him playing the field. That's what he's done his whole career. Nick's never been a DH. He's been a player. Now that the designated hitter position doesn't bother Jason, he's comfortable with it, I don't have to worry about Jason having problems sitting on the bench."

Torre still checks with Giambi most nights, and with the cold weather on this homestand, he is inclined to keep Giambi at DH to protect his hamstrings, which have been injured in the past.

"I'm glad Jason has had some good days DHing, because it's easier for me to (play Johnson)," Torre said. "The last couple days, it's more geared toward not taking a chance with Jason, given the weather. He's had leg troubles his whole career."

After a strong end to spring training, Giambi has not started well, going 6-for-33 (.182). He said it was not a big issue and not related to being the DH.

"I'm just off a little bit," he said. "It's just hitting, just getting back into the swing of things."

Giambi batted .344 as a first baseman last season and .271 at DH. Johnson actually hit better at DH than at first base (.277 to .221), but he said he never felt comfortable with the role, and his overall offense and defense suffered.

"I love to play first base," Johnson said. "It's awesome. I've played it my whole life, and I'm more used to that. But no matter what you're doing, you've got to find a way to get it done."

Johnson found himself with too much down time as the DH, escaping into the clubhouse to analyze replays of his at-bats. It was an agonizing routine that was hard to resist.

Torre thinks he can keep Johnson from overanalyzing if he keeps him on the field. But if Giambi encounters the same problem, Torre will let him return to the field and Johnson will play more at DH.

"If I feel he's maybe thinking too much about his hitting and I can take some of the overpreparing away from him, no question," Torre said.

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