Brewers 9, Diamondbacks 2

Monday, March 26th 2007, 9:38 pm
By: News On 6

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) _ Jose Valverde was the Arizona Diamondbacks' closer at the beginning and the end of last season.

In between, he spent six weeks at AAA Tucson.

Valverde will open this season as the Diamondbacks' bullpen ace again. If he pitches the way he has this spring, he has probably made his last appearance of the year in Tucson.

Valverde struck out one in a perfect seventh inning in the Diamondbacks' 9-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday. He faced former teammate Claudio Vargas, the Brewers' starting pitcher, and a pair of minor leaguers.

Valverde has allowed two earned runs in 6 2-3 innings (2.70 ERA).

``I think it's the best spring training I've had in my life,'' said Valverde, who pitched on back-to-back days for the first time this spring. ``I have all my pitches working.''

The Diamondbacks would like him to concentrate on his fastball and his split-finger and forget about tinkering with off speed stuff.

``He's got a good fastball and a split,'' manager Bob Melvin said. ``When you're coming in for one inning, that's what you need.''

Perhaps symbolically, Valverde excelled on a day the Diamondbacks sent Jorge Julio and cash to the Florida Marlins for minor leaguer Yusmeiro Petit. The Diamondbacks picked up Julio from the New York Mets last season when Valverde was struggling, and Julio briefly took over the closer role while Valverde was in the minor leagues.

The Diamondbacks hope Valverde's strong spring is a sign of things to come. But they had good feelings about him last spring, too.

Valverde got off to a hot start last season, earning saves in nine straight appearances from April 22-May 14. But the hitters caught up to him in mid-May. From May 19-June 28, Valverde gave up 24 runs in 14 1-3 innings.

The club sent Valverde to AAA Tucson July 3. He returned six weeks later, and when Julio faded, Melvin gave Valverde a second chance.

He had 4 saves and a 2.25 ERA over his last 10 appearances, and it was enough to persuade Melvin to make him the closer heading into this season.

``When he narrows it down to his best pitches, he's good,'' Melvin said. ``What we're trying to impress upon him is, go with his best stuff.''

While Valverde breezed, starter Enrique Gonzalez was roughed up in his fourth spring start. He allowed 7 runs, 5 of them earned, in the 3rd inning. Gonzalez gave up 6 hits, including a home run, and walked one. He struck out 4 in 5 innings.

With the final roster cuts coming on Sunday, Gonzalez' timing wasn't good.

``It's a competitive situation,'' general manager Josh Byrnes said. ``I guess every outing counts.''

Gonzalez is among a handful of pitchers contending to be the club's fifth starter, although the winner may be out of a job as soon as Randy Johnson is ready to join the rotation. Lefty Dana Eveland, right-hander Dustin Nippert and right-hander Micah Owings are also in the mix.