PHOENIX -- Clearly needing a strong showing to strengthen his case for being named Oakland's No. 5 starter, Joe Kennedy had his best outing of the spring on Tuesday against the host Brewers at Maryvale Baseball Park.

A day after manager Bob Geren said the club's decision on the spot will be based primarily on performance, Kennedy looked nothing like the struggling pitcher who allowed 22 runs on 31 hits over 9 2/3 innings (20.48 ERA) in his first four Cactus League starts. He threw hard, he threw strikes, and when he was ahead in the count, he finished hitters off.

"That was the biggest difference, putting guys away," said Kennedy, who gave up a run on three hits and a walk while striking out nine. "It feels like I've given up a thousand two-strike hits this spring, so today was great."

Kennedy was well aware of the importance of his outing going into it but said he tried not to put any pressure on himself.

"I knew I had to show something," he conceded. "I just wanted to go out there and pitch like I know I can. And I did, so it feels really good."

"He was great," Geren said. "Obviously that's the best I've seen him this spring. Might be the best I've seen him, period. ... I didn't see any radar readings, but it looked like he had a little extra velocity, and his curveball was very good."

Kennedy estimated that seven of his nine strikeouts came on curveballs. He ditched that pitch three years ago while with the Rockies in a concession to the dry, thin air of Colorado, but he's brought it back into his repertoire.

"I threw a lot of them today," he said. "It used to be my put-away pitch when I first got to the big leagues [with Tampa Bay in 2001], but it didn't really work in Colorado, and I didn't need it here as a reliever. But I've been working pretty hard to get it back to that point this spring.

The outing lowered Kennedy's ERA to 14.11, and the run he gave up probably should have been unearned. Bill Hall's leadoff grounder, which got past second baseman Mark Ellis in the second inning, was generously ruled a single, and Hall eventually scored.

With Ellis sitting next to him in the visitor's clubhouse after his outing, Kennedy smiled and said, "If it wasn't for Ellis, my ERA would only be 12 or 13."

Lefty Brad Halsey, Kennedy's main competition for the spot, isn't scheduled to pitch again until Friday in San Francisco. According to Geren, a decision might be made before then.

"The soonest will be tomorrow morning," he said.

Late scratch: First baseman Dan Johnson, who was batting .361 (13-for-36) over his previous 14 games, was scheduled to start and bat sixth against the Brewers, but was removed from the lineup because of a strained left hip flexor.

"It wasn't on the [morning] injury report," Geren said. "I'll have more information for you [Wednesday] morning."

Johnson's absence forced Geren to get creative, and his solution again underscored the importance of his favorite word this spring: versatility.

Nick Swisher, who will see most of his playing time early in the year in right field, was scheduled to start in center field but was moved to first base when Johnson was scratched. Utilityman Antonio Perez, who was not scheduled to start, took over in center.

"We're probably going to have to do some mixing and matching like that all year as different things come up," Geren said. "It's so nice to know we have the guys to do it with."

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Kielty on track: Bobby Kielty, working his way back from March 2 knee surgery, shined in his first Cactus League start.

Batting third as Oakland's designated hitter, Kielty singled and eventually scored in the first inning, singled again in the third, doubled into the right-field corner in the fifth, lined out to right field in the seventh and struck out in the ninth.

"He had four great at-bats, hit the ball hard, and he said he felt great," Geren offered.

Slated to see his first defensive action in Wednesday's game, Kielty is expected to be healthy enough to break camp with the A's rather than stay behind in Arizona for more work.

"I hate to put odds on things, but I'd say yes, he'll be ready for Opening Day," said Geren, who added that Kielty probably will start two of the team's first four games of the regular season.

Kielty batted .325 against lefties last season, and the A's are scheduled to face Seattle lefty Jarrod Washburn on Tuesday, April 3, and will see Angels lefty Joe Saunders two days later in Anaheim. All of his hits Wednesday came against right-handers.

Game notes: Swisher, whom the A's have urged to focus more on using the entire field, stroked a clean opposite-field single in the first inning. ... Ellis, who entered the game hitless in his previous 10 at-bats and batting .196 overall, blooped an RBI double into left field in the first inning and blooped a single to right in the third. ... First baseman Erubiel Durazo entered the game in a 1-for-9 slump but broke out of it in a big way with a no-doubter of a three-run homer in the seventh inning. Red-hot infielder Donnie Murphy, who was 12-for-23 (.522) over his previous 14 games, followed with his first homer of the spring. ... Righty Kiko Calero retired the only two batters he faced, extending his streak of scoreless outings this spring to nine. ... Closer Huston Street, who worked a perfect seventh inning, hasn't allowed a run in nine outings this spring, either. ... Outfield prospect Travis Buck went 1-for-3 with a triple and is batting .380 overall.

Dribblers ...: Although it's been assumed for quite some time, Geren made official the order in which his starters will work during the regular season: Dan Haren, Esteban Loaiza, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton and, presumably, Kennedy. Prior to Wednesday, Geren has said only that Haren will start Opening Day and Harden will pitch the home opener a week later. ... Catcher Jason Kendall, outfielder Milton Bradley, designated hitter Mike Piazza and third baseman Eric Chavez did not make the trip to Maryvale. All four are expected to play in Oakland's Cactus League finale Wednesday against the Angels.

Up next: Haren is scheduled to face righty Nick Adenhart of the visiting Angels in a 1:05 p.m. start Wednesday at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.