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ON BASEBALL

In short, Cabrera stand-up teammate

MINNEAPOLIS -- Orlando Cabrera was probably doing cartwheels when he got the news Saturday. The veteran shortstop, eligible for free agency after this year, learned he was leaving Montreal (41-63) and heading into the playoff race with Boston (56-47). And though he had a bittersweet Red Sox debut -- homering in his first plate appearance and then being charged with an error after kicking an outfield relay leading to the Twins' winning run -- Cabrera was there to answer every question. Before and after the game, a 4-3 Minnesota victory.

"Sure I was nervous," said Cabrera, standing alone near his locker after the game. "It's my first time on a team and I want to make a great impression on my new teammates and the fans who are watching. I start out great and give Pedro Martinez a lead and then I just kick the ball and it costs us the game. I came here to win, and my first game we lose because of something I feel responsible for. I've never had to do this before but you always want to go out there and make a good first impression."

The 2001 National League Gold Glove winner did make a few nice plays, and after the home run on a 3-1 high fastball he was overmatched in some of his at-bats against Johan Santana, and against closer Joe Nathan. But the reality is that all the Boston hitters were overmatched yesterday.

Though Cabrera drew the error for booting Gabe Kapler's relay in the Twins' two-run eighth, it was Kapler's inability to hit the cutoff man that led to Lew Ford scoring the go-ahead run.

Kapler missed cutoff man Mark Bellhorn by a mile. Why was Kapler trying to rush his throw? If Kapler had hit Bellhorn, the play would have ended with the game tied at 3.

Give Cabrera credit for standing up and taking the blame. But that's nothing new according to Red Sox minor league consultant Tommy Harper, Cabrera's former hitting coach in Montreal. "Red Sox fans will really like this guy," Harper said. "He's a very good ballplayer. He's very smart, fundamentally sound. His greatest asset is his glove, but he's worked so hard to make himself a very decent hitter who can hit .280 for you and hit for some power. I remember [former Expos manager] Felipe [Alou] used to bat him third and fourth even with Vladdy [Guerrero] in the lineup. This guy can play the game. He cares about winning."

It was a bit ironic that the Sox, who are putting renewed emphasis on defense, lost yesterday because of defense. Cabrera, however, is the least of their problems. With Alan Embree on the mound with two men on, Sox manager Terry Francona warned his team not once, but twice that the Twins might attempt a double steal. The manager called it right, but Jason Varitek couldn't throw out Cristian Guzman at third. And that's when Justin Morneau sent the long fly to center where Kapler, subbing for Johnny Damon (the designated hitter), made the catch and threw wildly, leading to Cabrera's error. It may have come as a surprise to some that the Sox received a shortstop in return for Garciaparra because popular thinking had the Sox plugging Pokey Reese into that hole if Boston moved its perennial All-Star.However, Reese is on the disabled list with a bum thumb and perhaps the Sox didn't feel they could wait. Reese reported yesterday his thumb is fine and that he'll visit the doctor today. Reese had certainly hoped he could play shortstop on a full-time basis some day, but when asked about it yesterday, Reese just shrugged and said with a smile, "I'm not going to get into that. Orlando is a great shortstop and when I come back, we'll have a shortstop with a Gold Glove and me at second base with two and Bill Mueller is terrific at third and [first baseman] Doug Mientkiewicz has a Gold Glove, too. So that part of it is exciting."

What Cabrera is excited about is playing in a market where every game matters. He's now on a team that is a perennial buyer as the trade deadline approaches. Years of playing before sparse crowds in Montreal, never having the resources to keep good players, and never being able to acquire quality free agents had worn Cabrera down.

"That was a bad situation," Cabrera said. "Not having an owner . . . and when we had a chance to do something last year we couldn't even call up players from Triple A."

To accentuate the positive, Cabrera did get one of only two hits against Santana and became only the eighth Sox player to homer in his first plate appearance. He laid off a changeup before pounding a fastball into the left-field bleachers.

"It was the first time that's happened to me and I was really excited," Cabrera said. "I've seen Santana in some of the interleague games we played against him and he has a very good changeup. I was lucky to get my bat on the ball and hit it good."

Perhaps it wasn't fair that Cabrera, who wore No. 36 (twice his normal No. 18), was inserted in the No. 3 spot, normally occupied by David Ortiz, in his first game. Ortiz elected to drop the appeal of a five-game suspension so he can serve it with a bevy of lefthanded starters coming up.

"I've hit third and fourth before, but I was surprised," said Cabrera. "It's exciting to come in and be hitting in that spot with all the great hitters here. It's a great organization and a great team and I'm just here to help and hope to fit in. I tried not to listen to all the rumors, but you can't do better than this. This is a great team."

What Harper fears is that Boston fans might see Cabrera as Garciaparra's replacement rather than judging him on his own merits.

"I'm not trying to come out here and replace Nomar," said Cabrera. "I'm here to try and help my team and try to get to the playoffs."

Quite a first day. He took the heat for a teammate's mistake. And earlier he was also asked whether he thought he might re-sign with the Sox in the offseason.

"Well," he said politely, "this is my first day, my first day in the American League."

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