Mets' shuffling of Mora comes up aces; Valentine opts for Dunston on bench; Braves try to muzzle outspoken Rocker; NLCS notebook


NEW YORK -- New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine expressed confidence yesterday that his team would give a better account of itself at Shea Stadium, but he made a few lineup changes just in case.

Rookie outfielder Melvin Mora, who hit a home run after replacing flu-ridden veteran Rickey Henderson in Game 2, was in the starting lineup in center field last night, replacing Shawon Dunston. Valentine also shuffled the batting order, moving John Olerud into the second slot and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo into the No. 3 hole.

"Melvin's played well," Valentine said. "He's a good defensive outfielder. With Al [Leiter] pitching, defense is one of the things we're looking for. It allows me to have Shawon Dunston on the bench to counter any move rather than having Melvin on the bench as a pinch hitter. It's tougher for a young guy to do that."

Mora immediately made his manager look good, catching a fly ball in center in the first inning and firing a perfect strike to the plate to double up Bret Boone, and singling in the second for the Mets' first hit.

Valentine said that the change in the batting order was intended to put Alfonzo -- one of the Mets' hottest hitters in the series -- in a more prominent position in the batting order and make it tougher for Braves manager Bobby Cox to match up relievers in the late innings. It is the kind of thing Valentine had some success doing against the tough Houston bullpen during the regular season.

"Obviously, there was some spacing that we needed when we played Houston, because of their dominant left-handed reliever [Billy Wagner]," Valentine explained. "I think the same kind of spacing, with Fonzie [Alfonso] being hot, hitting in front of Mike [Piazza] where he might get a pitch or two more to hit, gives Fonzie a little more prominence in our lineup and it spaces out left-handers."

Hargrove reaction

Cox expressed shock when he heard that the Cleveland Indians fired manager Mike Hargrove yesterday. The Braves defeated the Indians in the 1995 World Series, and Cox apparently has great respect for Hargrove's ability.

"That's really a shocker," he said. "He's done a super job there. That's too bad. To me, he's a real good manager. There must have been underlying problems with the front office. That's the only thing I can think of. Everybody likes to win. I'm flabbergasted, to be honest with you."

Hargrove's 8 1/2-year tenure was third in the major leagues behind Minnesota's Tom Kelly and Cox.

Valentine also expressed surprise and sympathy for Hargrove, who reached the playoffs five consecutive times, but failed to bring home a world championship.

"I was surprised, myself," he said. "I have no statement to make. I hate to see that happen. It's not one of the things we like to see happen, that's for sure."

Cox to Rocker: Pipe down

Cox said yesterday that he intended to talk to reliever John Rocker, whose diatribe on Wednesday about Mets fans figures to keep the Shea Stadium crowd incited all weekend.

"I don't like it," Cox said. "I don't condone it. He was roughed up by the fans, I think, our first series here out in the outfield. And he's the type of guy that's going to give it right back to them. He's got to work on that. He's a great pitcher, a great competitor, but he needs to work on his player/fan relationships.

"I tell all our guys to watch what they say, that it's still the game of baseball, it's not a game of words."

In a pre-game interview on NBC, Rocker remained outspoken, saying the worst part of playing in New York was dealing with the fans who throw objects from the stands.

"This is the only place it happens out of 30 ballparks around the country, people making derogatory comments, throwing batteries and change, trying to do bodily harm. I just think someone needs to speak out and say that we don't need to hear those things or fear for our safety at a simple baseball game."

Smoltz chimes in

Teammate John Smoltz joined the list of Braves to display mild disapproval for the way Rocker has publicly antagonized New York baseball fans.

"It's kind of understood that that's not what you do," Smoltz said. "It's a long series. I always say, 'To each, their own.' But as a group, really, we haven't done much of that because I don't think you ever win.

"Yeah, you can go out there and keep dominating like he's doing, but our club is not about giving them something else to talk about. Our club is about going out there and winning a championship."

Around the horn

Major League Baseball and the New York Police Department has heightened security for the games at Shea Stadium.

Plainclothes officers will be interspersed throughout the crowd this weekend, especially around the Braves bullpen -- where Rocker could be the target of abuse.

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