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Starting contenders get their chance vs. Braves

The wide open race for the fifth starter spot shifts to Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex today when Adrian Hernandez and Randy Keisler are scheduled to pitch four innings each against the Braves.

Christian Parker, who made a strong statement with three shutout innings against Texas on Wednesday night, likely will work out of the bullpen Sunday or Monday to get additional innings.

"Who makes the best case for himself," said manager Joe Torre, on what will decide the matter.

Dwight Gooden could enter the picture because of his experience if the younger candidates falter.

Two veterans will start spilt-squad games Saturday. Expected opening-day pitcher Roger Clemens faces Los Angeles at Legends Field. Sid Fernandez takes the mound against Toronto at Dunedin.

CHUCK RETURNS: Chuck Knoblauch thought he needed a break until he got it.

The four-time All-Star second baseman returned to the lineup Thursday after a two-game absence that was scheduled before he made four bad throws in an exhibition game Monday.

Knoblauch worked out in Tampa rather than travel with the Yankees to Haines City to face the Royals on Tuesday. He had Wednesday off, missing a home game against the Rangers, as part of Torre's plan to give all regulars consecutive days off at some point during spring training.

"I wish I hadn't (gotten the days off)," he said. "I feel like I haven't been out there for a week."

In the game, he had only one ground ball hit to him in six innings. He fielded the ball cleanly and made an underhand flip to shortstop Derek Jeter for a force out at second.

SHORT HOPS: First baseman Nick Johnson (shoulder) should return by the weekend. Utility infielder Clay Bellinger (knee) might play this weekend. Pitcher Orlando Hernandez (forearm) remains on target to resume throwing on Saturday. Cuban defector Andy Morales, who had a game-winning two-run double in the ninth inning of Wednesday's 6-5 win against Texas, said "there are not words to describe" his New York debut.

WATCH OUT: Mike Mussina left Thursday night's game against the Blue Jays with a bruise inside his left knee. He was hit by Alex Gonzalez's one-hopper in the second inning. Team officials said the injury was not believed to be serious.

Mussina threw 26 of 33 pitches for strikes before departing after 1 scoreless innings. He allowed two hits.

Mussina signed a $88.5-million, six-year free-agent contract with the Yankees in November.

_ MARK DIDTLER, TIMES WIRES

Carpenter up next

TAMPA _ The Jays host the Rangers today at Grant Field. Chris Carpenter faces Ryan Glynn. Esteban Loaiza faces a Yankees spilt squad on Saturday.

Left-hander Mike Sirotka (shoulder) has started throwing from 60 feet on flat ground. Third baseman Tony Batista returned after missing three days with flulike symptoms. Joey Hamilton retired the Yankees on four pitches in the first inning Thursday.

_ MARK DIDTLER, TIMES WIRES

Pitchers get their work

CLEARWATER _ The team had a day off, but pitchers Rheal Cormier, Bruce Chen and Paul Byrd still got in work as it was their day to throw.

Cormier, who has been bothered by lower back stiffness, pitched one inning for Scranton against Syracuse at the Blue Jays' Englebert Complex in Dunedin. He faced five hitters, allowed two hits and no runs as he threw nine pitches, all for strikes.

"This is a step in the right direction," he said.

Chen followed. In four innings he allowed two hits, four runs (one earned), struck out three and walked three.

"He threw well, but got hurt by a two-out walk," manager Larry Bowa said. "It is a matter of concentration, for nine innings, not just for a couple of outs."

Byrd threw on the side at Jack Russell Stadium in the morning. "He threw great," Bowa said.

WATCHING THE K

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