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03/21/08 10:00 AM ET

Furcal's health boosts Dodgers

Shortstop back to form, looking to top 2006 career year

LOS ANGELES -- It takes more than one disappointment for a team to fall as far as the Dodgers did from 2006 to 2007.

But if there's one player best positioned to reverse the results, it is probably shortstop Rafael Furcal.

Furcal had a career year in 2006, when the Dodgers finished tied for first in the National League West, and had his worst season in five years in 2007, when he played hurt and the Dodgers finished fourth.

"You can draw a strong parallel to the success of the club when he's healthy," general manager Ned Colletti said of Furcal. Now, entering his free-agent year, Furcal is healthy and the Dodgers are counting on him.

"He's crucial," said All-Star catcher Russell Martin. "He's the kind of guy that threatens with his speed and aggressiveness, and he's just no fun for any team. Having him 100-percent healthy gives our team an extra boost."

Furcal's 2007 season was effectively ruined on March 22 in a Spring Training game at Holman Stadium against Baltimore. Orioles outfielder Corey Patterson sent a blooper into shallow center field; Furcal raced out, center fielder Jason Repko raced in. Repko slid as Furcal reached to make the catch, but Repko's foot clipped Furcal's left foot just as it landed, bearing all of his weight, and the ankle turned badly.

Furcal spent the first two weeks of the season on the disabled list. He went to Class A Inland Empire for a rehab assignment, which he cut short after two games, declaring he was ready to play, even though his actions on the field said otherwise. He had trouble with any quick movement on the left ankle and lacked rear-leg stability batting left-handed.

Nonetheless, knowing he would require several months of rest for the injury to fully heal, the club activated Furcal on April 13. He went on to bat .203 that month. Furcal had flashes of his previous brilliance, including an amazing stretch in mid-May when he had three consecutive four-hit games and a .325 July.

Those were the exceptions. The rule was that Furcal wasn't the player he was in 2006. He finished with 26 fewer runs scored, 23 fewer extra-base hits, 12 fewer steals, 30 fewer points in average, 36 fewer points in on-base percentage and 90 fewer points in slugging percentage.

And that was just the offense. Martin said it was obvious to teammates that Furcal was limited in other ways by the lingering injury.

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"You could really see it on defense," Martin said. "He didn't have the sharpness on his stops. The ball in the hole, he'd have to take a couple of extra steps to get rid of the ball. This year, he's cutting like he wants to, he's not nursing it."

When September rolled around, Furcal started playing like his old self. Having stolen no more than three bases in any previous month, he stole 11 bases from Sept. 2-15, only to wrench his back on Sept. 16. He was shut down the final two weeks of the season.

Furcal took the rest he needed to heal when the season ended, then recaptured some of those missing at-bats by playing well in the Dominican Winter League. That put his game in top shape and he reported to Spring Training lighter than he did the previous two springs.

"This year, everything is better," said Furcal. "My first year, I had knee surgery and my shoulder was sore. Last year, the ankle. Right now, I'm 100 percent. Everything looks good right now."

And the rest of the team?

"I think it's the best team since I've been here, because this team has better pitching than the last two years," he said. "We've got a lot of guys that want to win."

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