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03/14/10 7:38 PM ET
'Everything feels better' for LA's Furcal
Confident shortstop no longer fearful of reinjuring back
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
PHOENIX -- Rafael Furcal was back at work and back at shortstop on Sunday, the day after finally taking a break in his obsessive pursuit of his former self. It is extremely rare to find an established veteran as an everyday player in Spring Training, but Furcal is finally feeling too good to feel rundown. He has played in eight of the Dodgers' nine Cactus League games, with gradually increasing production and hop in his steps. And you'll again find him in the middle of the Tempe Diablo Stadium infield on Monday, when the Dodgers visit the Angels. "I have no problem playing every day. When you feel healthy, that's 70 percent of everything," Furcal said after going 1-for-3 in the Dodgers' 6-4 victory over a split squad of Rangers at Camelback Ranch. "And I'm feeling good, healthy. Best I have in years. Last year, I didn't feel like Rafael Furcal. I didn't feel comfortable, didn't have the confidence." At first glance, you'd be tempted to conclude others should suffer through such dumps. As the Dodgers successfully defended their National League West championship, Furcal played a busy slate of 150 games, batting .269 and tying for second on the team with 92 runs. But, to him, it felt like he was playing on pins and needles, agonizing over the possibility of reinjuring his lower back. He was playing a shell game, and now he is ready to come out of his shell. "I felt afraid of hurting the back again," Furcal said. "Everything I did, that was in the back of my mind." You don't have to look too far beneath the surface to realize Furcal wasn't himself, playing without the verve and dazzle that had made him a Rookie of the Year at 22 and an All-Star at 25. And without the legs: He stole only 12 bases -- in 18 attempts -- last season, a low total and low percentage for someone who had come to Los Angeles prior to the 2006 season with 189 bags in six Atlanta seasons. Is there anything more jarring to a surgically repaired back than sliding? That was just one of the ways Furcal tiptoed through the season; you're going to proceed cautiously if there's fear in the back of the mind that there'll be no "up" in your pop-up slide.
2010 Spring Training - Los Angeles Dodgers
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"As a whole," Furcal said, "it was bad. I never found myself until the end of the season."In recalling his own experience of a year ago, Garret Anderson offered insight into the difficulty of starting off with a physical burden. Not only did he not sign with the Braves until Feb. 24, with Spring Training already under way, but a left thigh muscle strain in late April shelved him for a couple of weeks. "Then I felt like I was playing uphill all season," said Anderson. "People underestimate how important Spring Training is. It's not just for pitchers. If you're fighting a little injury once the season starts, it seems like you never catch up. The game is just too fast." In Don Mattingly's view, a year ago Furcal was making the game counterproductively fast. "He was too jumpy. We had to slow him down," said Mattingly, the club's hitting coach. "Raffy plays so hard, and when things aren't going well, he gets frustrated. He was rushing too much last year." Probably in a hurry to distance himself from the back injury that had ruined 2008. If there was a delayed benefit to that injury, it was the sensible decision to give it time to heal completely after last season by skipping winter ball, normally a staple for the proud Dominican. "Since he didn't play winter ball, we let him know that he wouldn't be feeling as good coming into camp, that it'll take him awhile to get his legs," Mattingly said. "His BP [batting practice] has been getting better, and that's what you look for, that's part of the process." Furcal's normal game is a different kind of fast, and his first Dodgers season was characteristic -- .300 average, 37 steals, 159 games. But the last three have deprived the team's fans of the real Furcal, something he is certain of rectifying. His 2007 began on the disabled list with a sprained ankle, which continued to plague him throughout the season. His 2008 began in torrid fashion, before he had to take his .366 average onto the DL and ultimately into the OR (operating room). Then the tentative 2009. Now ... "I'm not afraid about my body," he said. "I feel healthy. The spring is back in my legs. Everything feels better."