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Tejada continues to make case to stay with Mets

Slick-fielding infielder Ruben Tejada has impressed with his

Slick-fielding infielder Ruben Tejada has impressed with his defense, though he is unlikely to supplant Alex Cora as the starting shortstop in Jose Reyes' absense. (Mar. 2, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Alex Cora remains penciled in to be the Opening Day replacement for Jose Reyes as long as the Mets opt for experience over the youthful athleticism of Ruben Tejada. But Cora, whose temporary starting job already is being threatened by Tejada's rise, still is one of the 20-year-old's biggest fans.

"He reminds me of Cesar Izturis in a lot of ways," Cora said Friday after the Mets' 7-3 loss to the Twins at Tradition Field. "The way he moves his feet. There's not a play out there that he can't make. He definitely looks very comfortable."

Cora was part of the Dodgers' double-play tandem in 2004, when Izturis won a Gold Glove at shortstop, so the comparison is high praise for Tejada. The question for the Mets, however, is Tejada's maturity at the plate as they weigh relying on him for the regular season in Reyes' absence.

On Thursday, Jerry Manuel publicly endorsed Cora for the starting job, and the 11-year veteran bristles slightly at any suggestion that he is in a competition with the youngster. But if Tejada keeps playing the way he did Friday, the Mets will have to at least consider him for an Opening Day roster spot.

Tejada went 2-for-5 with a pair of doubles and was solid on defense. He helped turn two double plays and made another heads-up play by throwing out Wilson Ramos when he strayed too far off third on a ground ball. That saved one run for Johan Santana, but the Twins later scored three off the Mets' ace in that same inning.

Despite his support of Cora, who is earning $2 million this season as a backup, Manuel often mentions Tejada in the same breath as reliever Jenrry Mejia - another 20-year-old on the brink of the majors.

There is a key difference. Manuel explains that the jump for a position player is more complicated because of the mental strain of hitting, and the manager fears for Tejada's confidence if he is force-fed a diet of Josh Johnson and Roy Halladay this early in his development.

"Offense determines whether you stay or not," Manuel said. "We obviously like that defense first, and whatever we get offensively, we can live with. But eventually you're going to have to have some skills and some survival from an offensive point of view to remain at this level."

Tejada, like Mejia, seems unflappable. He's still working on his English, but with Mejia teasing him from a few feet away, Tejada did his best to answer a few questions. Even with the Mets pushing him to this degree, he doesn't sound overmatched.

"I don't feel nervous," Tejada said. "It's baseball and I like playing the game." As for the possibility of making the team out of spring training, he added, "You never know what can happen."

Who could have possibly known that Reyes would be stricken with an overactive thyroid? The Mets have been tight-lipped about his progress, but they are not actively searching for a shortstop outside the organization, meaning they expect him back sooner rather than later.

Although the Nationals are anxious to unload Cristian Guzman and his $8-million salary, a person familiar with the situation said the Mets are not interested. Maybe in two more weeks, Tejada will have wiped out any of the Mets' remaining doubts.

"If you can play, you can play," David Wright said. "And from what I've seen, he can play. He's got a lot of confidence, and with his mannerisms, you wouldn't know how old he is."

Notes & quotes: Santana looked sketchy in allowing nine hits and three runs in 31/3 innings, including two homers. But he stressed that his health remains the most important thing. "We're building everything up,'' he said, "so to me, it was good."

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