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No joke: Cone continues to shine

David Cone stepped into the batter's box and saw Todd Hundley crouching behind the plate.

"What are you trying to prove?" Hundley razzed his old batterymate.

"Me? You still alive?" Cone jibed back.

After Monday's exhibition against Los Angeles, Cone still was smiling. He cut through the middle of the Dodgers lineup, setting down Shawn Green, Fred McGriff and Brian Jordan while pitching two perfect innings in the New York Mets' 2-1 win.

Trying to make a comeback at 40 after taking a year off, Cone has faced nine batters in spring games and retired all of them.

"It was a good test," he said. "I'm definitely making some progress. Each step has been in the right direction. As things have gone, I'm encouraged."

The Mets invited their former ace to camp almost on a lark, to see whether he had anything left after going 9-7 for Boston in 2001.

Out of respect, they put him in a prominent place in the clubhouse, giving him a locker between Al Leiter and Tom Glavine and presenting him with No. 16, the number Dwight Gooden made famous for the Mets.

But now with No. 3 starter Pedro Astacio likely to start the season on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, there might be more of a need.

"He did a nice job. He kept the ball down, that's what I was pleased with," manager Art Howe said. "Another good outing."

VLAD BRAWLING: Vladimir Guerrero was ejected in the first inning for starting a bench-clearing fight during the Montreal Expos' 7-4 win over the Florida Marlins.

Brad Penny's second pitch to Guerrero grazed the Montreal slugger's uniform. Still holding his bat in his left hand, Guerrero had words for Penny as catcher Matt Treanor tried to restrain the batter.

After Penny got closer, Guerrero swung his right fist around the catcher at the pitcher, missing. Penny retaliated with a punch that missed, and the dugouts emptied.

"I'm not trying to hit a guy in spring training, especially not in the first inning," Penny said.

REPORT TO BE RELEASED: A toxicology report on the death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler probably will be released Thursday. Broward County medical examiner Dr. Joshua Perper said Monday that he will hold a news conference to disclose the findings.

Bechler died Feb. 17 of heatstroke in Fort Lauderdale after a spring training workout. The pitcher was taking an over-the-counter supplement that contained the weight-loss supplement ephedra, which likely contributed to his death, Perper said last month.

PADRES: Pitcher Rob Ramsay's inspirational comeback from a brain tumor will move on to the minors. The left-hander, in camp as a nonroster invitee, was reassigned to the minor-league camp. "He needs to get work," manager Bruce Bochy said. "It's hard to get innings now with our starters getting stretched out." Ramsay, 29, had surgery Jan. 23, 2002, to remove a cancerous brain tumor and overcame a difficult road to recovery. He is playing even though he still must undergo chemotherapy treatments every six weeks.

PIRATES: Right-hander Al Reyes was released, and left-handers Mike Gonzalez and Matt Guerrier were optioned to the minors.

RANGERS: Injury-plagued pitcher Justin Thompson and first-round draft pick Drew Meyer were among 12 players the team reassigned to its minor-league camp.

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