© 2009 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

10/08/09 6:45 PM EST

With healthy back, Furcal regains spark

Shortstop finally 'strong again' after surgery last year

LOS ANGELES -- Rafael Furcal is building a state-of-the-art baseball academy in his native Dominican Republic that he intends to lease to a Major League team and operate when he retires as a player.

There were those who, watching Furcal struggle with the aftereffects of last year's back surgery, wondered if retirement might be sooner than later.

But there he was in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday night at his leadoff best, knocking out three hits, scoring a run and driving in another as the spark plug of the Dodgers' offense.

Dodgers at a glance
2009 record: 95-67
2008 record: 84-78
NL West champs
NL best record
NLCS matchup:
Phillies at Dodgers
Postseason tix: Buy now

Loney: Taking good swings
Kuo: Long road back
Thome: Back in Philly
Loney: Building resume
Bullpen: Led by Broxton
Torre: Rep precedes him
Blake: Chemistry guy
Kershaw: Game 1 nod?
Dodgers: Eyes on prize
Kemp: Path of the pros
Furcal: Back healthy
Kershaw: Like Koufax
Hudson: Keeping head up
Billingsley: Unknown role
Ethier: Slump over
Torre: Tough decisions
Kershaw: Elite comparisons
Kemp: Nearly elite
Kershaw: Path to the pros
Billingsley: Fate in balance
Ethier: Aims to improve
Torre: Back to playoffs
Kershaw: Ready to rock
Rotation: Plenty of options
Kemp: Chasing LA history
Bullpen: Dominant pair
Honeycutt: Pitching guru
Kemp: Tools to match talent
Ethier: Walk-off wonder
Billingsley: Vying for spot
Ethier/Kemp: Dynamic duo
Torre: Another pennant race
Pierre: Receives high praise
Kershaw: Beyond his years

"To me, the middle of the lineup is only effective if the guys on top of the lineup can get on base and put pressure on pitchers," manager Joe Torre said. "Rafael brings so much to the table. He's got so much more life in his body here over the last month or six weeks that has really made a difference in how we've played and how we've been able to score runs. He's sort of added another dimension to what we were doing earlier."

Game 1 continued a hot stretch for Furcal that began over the final two weeks of the regular season, when he hit .429, raising his overall average 14 points to .269 while reaching base the final 24 games he played, almost as if a switch had been flipped.

Hardly. Furcal said it took that long for him to rebuild his back strength -- and the confidence that his body was whole. It really showed when he went the first five months with only nine steal attempts and had seven in the last two weeks of the season. Six of his stolen bases came before Sept. 14, the other six came in the final 16 games.

"I was afraid a little bit in the first half," he said. "When I wanted to steal, I didn't want to dive too much on the bases. A ground ball in the hole, I didn't want to dive to catch the ball. Now I know nothing happens. Now my back is 100 percent, better than it was before the surgery. The last month, I feel strong again and I have my balance."

The surgery to repair a herniated disk not only disabled Furcal for nearly five months last year, but it became a lingering handicap this year, trainer Stan Conte said.

The Dodgers went 51-22 during the regular season when Rafael Furcal scored a run.

"When this year started, he had no pain or discomfort, but there was a lack of confidence, especially in the field and on the bases," said Conte. "From a medical and clinical standpoint, he was healthy, But there's a difference between being healthy and being in baseball shape and he had never had to play himself into shape until now.

"I was very concerned that the first year back would be the toughest. I knew if he played enough, he would turn back into Raffy Furcal, but I didn't know when. From a risk standpoint, he was looking at potentially an up-and-down year. I expected the first half to be a challenge."

Nonetheless, Furcal -- who turns 32 later this month -- still scored 92 runs and Torre stuck with him, except for the dozen days off that all sides believe kept Furcal fresh enough to have something left in October.

Furcal is on an exercise and stretching program that Conte said he'll need to continue the rest of his life. Even when he's running that academy.

"The back will continue to be his weak link," he said. "Once something like that happens, the wear and tear is always a concern."

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