LOS ANGELES -- When the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired John Shelby from the Baltimore Orioles, they put him in center field, slotted him second in the batting order and said, in effect, "All yours . . . as long as you produce."

That was May 22, and in the Dodgers' 18 games since, Shelby has played every inning in the field, taken every turn at bat -- it helps, being a switch-hitter -- and has been one of the better producers in a nonbanner Dodgers year. He is hitting .292 with four home runs.

"He's just what we needed out there," said Manager Tom Lasorda. "He's got it until somebody takes it away from him."

The Dodgers had reached desperation status in center, where youngsters Mike Ramsey and Reggie Williams and the fading Ken Landreaux all had 1987 trials that proved mostly trying to Lasorda.

But Shelby, a career .239 hitter in just 500 major league games during a decade in the Orioles system, a man given up on after a resounding flop to start this season? And direct from the Rochester Red Wings?

Not only might you not expect much from such a player, but you might expect to find him pressing, overanxious to make good with a new organization, in a new league.

He hasn't been. "I've been trying to stay within myself," said Shelby. "There's no doubt I want to do well, but I know I can't go out and hit .400."

Still, he's trying, with lots of work off the field. The other day before the Dodgers met the New York Mets, Shelby and batting coach Manny Mota went into an indoor cage down a hall from the home clubhouse. Mota pitched. Shelby bunted. Again. And again. Shelby batting right-handed, then left-handed. "The only way to do it -- repetition, repetition," said Mota.

Then swinging away. Mota: "Shorten more -- just meet the ball. Nice and easy -- that's it!"

With Shelby himself gathering up the dozens of baseballs so he could swing at them some more, he and Mota did this for about half an hour.

Almost game time now. Game 10 of Shelby's National League career. He had hit a first-inning home run the day before that turned out to be the Dodgers' only run in a 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. But he was batting an even .250 as he came up for the first time against the Mets' sidearming Terry Leach.

He hit Leach's 0-1 pitch to deepest center field, a bid for another first-inning homer, but it was caught at the wall. And so it went all evening. He just missed a shoestring catch on a hit by Gary Carter; just missed throwing out Howard Johnson scoring from second on a single; just missed coming to bat in a game-turning situation as Steve Sax, ahead of him, made the third out with two runners on as the Dodgers tried to rally from a 5-1 deficit in the seventh; just missed getting a good rally going in the eighth when he led off with a single only to be erased in a double play; took a called third strike, as the potential tying run, on a pitch that appeared to just miss inside to end the game.

Maybe, it was suggested, that's the story of his life -- he just missed?

"No, I don't feel that way at all. This is a new beginning, a chance to make good. They gave me center field, said it's my job. It's not the same as opening the season in Baltimore {when he was given right field only to go two for 20, with 10 strikeouts, to play his way out of the lineup after just six starts}. There's no time limit."

At this point, the man called T-Bone -- "called that since I was a kid in Lexington, Ky., because my name was John T. Shelby and the T didn't stand for anything" -- and the Dodgers seem to suit each other to a T.

"He's a fine young man. The kind we were looking for. He can do the things we want," said Lasorda.

"It's real exciting," said Shelby. "I've wanted to play in the National League. But it was a thrill, too, to make it with Baltimore. Did I get a fair chance there? Well, it's hard to say . . . But coming here was coming from one class organization to another. It is gratifying to have been wanted by two such organizations.

"I'm just thankful to come out here and get a chance to play," said Shelby, who just may be a natural West Coast hitter, judging by his career averages of .345 in Anaheim Stadium and .343 in Oakland Coliseum. And batting ahead of Pedro Guerrero is hardly a comedown from setting the table for Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray.

"I signed with the Orioles with a smile on my face," he said, "and I left with a smile on my face."