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Can Mota handle the pressure?


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JUPITER, Fla. ? It's comforting to know you can always count on some things in the Grapefruit League. The Yankees will average 10,000-plus a game at Legends Field. The traffic is always horrific on Route 4 from Tampa past Orlando. And for every general manager who has things under control, three look harried as they explore late trade possibilities and try to finalize rosters for the season opener.


Meanwhile, for every mystery that's resolved, several persist. Here are five questions to ponder in Florida with a little more than a week left until Opening Day:


1. Can Guillermo Mota close in Florida?

The Marlins refused to overpay to keep Armando Benitez because they thought Mota could handle the closer's job, but there's some skepticism in the baseball world. Mota has to debunk the notion that he's lights-out in the eighth inning and unreliable in the ninth ? a la LaTroy Hawkins.


"He's suspect,'' a National League scout said. "He has makeup issues, and he can have getting-the-ball-over-the-plate issues. He has enough stuff to close, but some guys are made to set up. I think they'll be doing it by committee before it's over.''


Mota converted only 3-of-7 save opportunities last year in Florida (he's 5-for-16 in his career) and was terrible in September. But in fairness to him, manager Jim Tracy used him a lot in Los Angeles for the first four months last season. Mota led all National League relievers with 201-2/3 innings pitched in 2003 and 2004. With the move to closer, he won't have nearly as taxing a workload.


"I know this role is more pressure-packed,'' said Paul Lo Duca, Mota's catcher in Los Angeles and Florida. "But Mo got some big outs as the seventh-and-eighth-inning guy with the Dodgers, and I think he definitely has the mentality for this. He just needs a situation where the bases are loaded with one or two outs and he gets out of it. And boom ? he'll be over the top.''


The Marlins signed Antonio Alfonseca and Todd Jones as Plan B and C over the winter. If Mota blows a couple of saves and manager Jack McKeon starts wavering, as he is prone to do, there's the potential for some hard feelings and spicy headlines in south Florida.

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