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Is He a Sure-Bet Met? : Baseball: Chris Donnels, a former South Torrance High and Loyola Marymount standout, has been impressive in his major league debut.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was an auspicious way for third baseman Chris Donnels to make his major league debut: Before a sellout throng of 44,744 at Shea Stadium on May 8.

“It’s nice to have all these people come out to see me,” Donnels joked.

Actually, the fans were there to see Darryl Strawberry’s first appearance in New York in a Dodger uniform. But stepping into the fishbowl that is the New York sports stage, Donnels quickly established himself as a new Mets darling. Admitting to some butterflies, Donnels said he hoped to channel the adrenaline “into some positive energy.”

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In his first at-bat, the former Loyola Marymount and South Torrance High standout--called up earlier in the day from triple-A Tidewater, N.Y. to replace injured Gregg Jefferies--singled in a run and received a loud ovation.

Throughout the game he made a series of fine plays at third, capping his performance in the sixth inning with a slick barehanded pickup and throw of Brett Butler’s bunt. His fielding earned him a spot in several highlights-of-the-week videos and a standing ovation at Shea.

“That gave me a thrill,” Donnels said. “It was great enough to make the play, then the crowd appreciated it.”

In the ninth inning, Donnels committed a throwing error that helped the Dodgers pull to within 6-5, but then he retired Strawberry on a grounder for the final out.

“I got a lot of firsts out of the way,” he said, grinning. “First hit, first (run batted in), first error.”

The next day, Met Manager Bud Harrelson said: “What memories to have of your first game. That’s something they can never take away. He appreciated the shot he was getting, he took advantage and he had an outstanding game.”

People were beginning to wonder if Donnels--the Mets’ first-round pick four years ago--fit in the Mets’ plans. They already have more infielders on the roster than needed, creating yet another New York controversy about whom Harrelson should play--and where--while juggling Jefferies, Howard Johnson, Kevin Elster and Tommy Herr at three positions. And when Donnels was mentioned this spring, it was often in trade rumors.

But Jefferies has been hurt, and when he returned to the active roster this week, Elster was placed on the disabled list, allowing the Mets to continue to look at Donnels under major league conditions.

“I’m here till I pack my bags,” Donnels said. “If I hit, who knows? Hopefully I’ll find out. I look at it as an opportunity to show what I can do. Then if the situation comes up again I hope they keep me in mind. Whatever I can do up here is a plus. So I just plan to relax and have a good time.”

So far, Donnels has justified the promotion from Tidewater, where he was batting .365. A left-handed batter who characterizes himself as more of a line-drive gap hitter than the slugger he was in college, he helped the Mets win an extra-inning game Sunday, driving in an 11th-inning run in a 4-2 victory at San Diego.

Going into a three-game series starting tonight against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, Donnels is batting .273 with three RBIs and three walks in four games.

“Any time you call a guy up and he excels, it says a little bit about the nature of the beast,” Harrelson said.

Donnels has always seemed on his way to the majors, winning the Southern Section player-of-the-year honors at South Torrance. As a sophomore, he helped Loyola earn a trip to the 1986 College World Series in Omaha.

Although he was drafted and signed after his junior season in 1987, Donnels still holds several Loyola records, including home runs in a season (21) and career (45), RBIs for a season (91) and career (225) and slugging percentage (.681 in 1986, .654 career).

But Donnels progressed slowly through the Mets system, playing three seasons in Class-A before convincing the Mets he was ready for a promotion by batting .313 with 17 homers and 78 RBIs in less than 400 at-bats in 1989. Last season he hit .272 at Jackson, Miss., the Mets’ double-A affiliate.

Harrelson said one of the things that has made Donnels a more attractive prospect recently is his improved fielding.

Although he just turned 25, Donnels still seems bottle-necked behind the Mets’ well-stocked infield, and he was mentioned as a potential throw-in in several trade rumors this spring before pitcher Sid Fernandez broke a leg, scrapping the Mets’ trade plans.

“I don’t worry much about the guys (ahead of him) in New York,” Donnels said. “I just keep working. I heard some of that trade stuff but till they tell me I’m leaving I don’t take much stock in them. I’m looking forward to staying with the Mets and playing in New York.”

Married over the winter, Donnels and wife Michele live in Huntington Beach. He stays in contact with Loyola Coach Chris Smith and former teammates, including outfielder Billy Bean, now in the Dodgers system at triple-A Albuquerque, N.M.

Whatever his future holds, Donnels has that first game to remember. It was televised nationally on cable, and he said several friends and relatives videotaped it.

A keeper?

“Definitely!” he said.


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