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11/12/10 6:10 PM EST

Manzella leaves winter ball in Dominican early

HOUSTON -- Tommy Manzella's winter-ball stint in the Dominican Republic lasted only two weeks, cut short by an illness and the victim of his team's struggles early in the season. His goal now is to take advantage of his extra time back home.

Manzella, the Astros' starting shortstop for most of last year, was released by Aguilas Cibaenas of the Dominican Winter League after only nine games. He hit .182 (4-for-22) and got more than two at-bats in a game only five times before his playing time was reduced and he was eventually released.

Not long after arriving in the Dominican, Manzella had a bad reaction to food that made him ill. He also contracted a stomach virus that weakened his immune system, and he wound up losing 13 pounds in the two weeks he was in the Dominican, which affected him on the field.

"I was trying to figure out what's the best way to eat food and still be strong enough to play a game," Manzella said. "If I hadn't gotten that virus, I would have been fine. Both of those [illnesses] together weren't good for me. I was just starting to feel a little bit better when I got sent home. It was a situation where the team wasn't winning and there was a little bit of a sense of urgency to win."

Manzella, 27, has righted himself physically back home in Louisiana and has gained back all but five pounds of the weight he lost in the Dominican. He plans to work on improving his lateral agility and speed with hopes of coming to Spring Training ready to impress the Astros.

"That's my goal," he said. "I want to break camp with the team and come to camp ready to win a job, whether it's the starting shortstop job or any way I can help the team. This offseason is all about putting my body mentally and physically in the best position to do so."

The frustrating experience in the Dominican capped a disappointing year for Manzella, who battled a quadriceps strain in Spring Training and lost strength in his legs. He won the starting shortstop job to begin the season and wound up missing more than six weeks when he fractured his finger diving for a ball on June 22.

Manzella, who hit .225 in 258 at-bats in 2010, ended the season on the upswing offensively after coming back from his broken finger. He hit .261 in 69 at-bats to finish the season while he was splitting playing time with Angel Sanchez.

Because he lost so much playing time during the regular season, Manzella had planned to go to the Dominican and get at least 100 at-bats. He wanted to work on seeing more pitches and hitting in pressure situations late in games and with runners on base. He never got the chance.

"The last four or five games I was there, I would get two at-bats and would get pinch-hit for my third at-bat," he said. "It was a situation where they were trying to win and playing matchups. I wanted to work on hitting with runners in scoring position, which is harder to do because you have to be able to slow the game down and not put too much pressure on yourself, [as opposed to] when you're hitting with nobody on."

With the team struggling, Manzella met with Aguilas Cibaenas management and they determined it would be best to part ways.

"It's an unfortunate situation the way things turned out in winter ball in the Dominican, but being back a couple of weeks sooner gives me that much more time to improve my strength and speed," he said. "It's kind of a blessing in disguise and will help me get prepared for next year."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.