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03/13/11 10:30 PM ET

MacDougal breathing new life with Dodgers

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The methods by which pitchers seek improvement vary widely, but Mike MacDougal is crediting his latest reincarnation to something unconventional even by pitching standards: a neti pot.

The hard-throwing MacDougal has impressed a Dodgers staff that is looking for pitchers after injuries to Vicente Padilla and Jon Garland. MacDougal pitched out of a jam Sunday, holding the damage to an unearned run and hasn't allowed an earned run or a walk in 4 1/3 spring innings.

"He's been good," manager Don Mattingly said last week. "In the past, he's always had tremendous stuff. I saw him in Kansas City; he's got that kind of stuff you like. Power stuff. [Pitching coaches Rick Honeycutt] and Kenny [Howell] are working to keep him on line and command the ball better."

The 34-year-old right-hander, once an All-Star closer with three 20-save seasons, said he's regained his top form because he's healthy again and he thinks the neti pot is a big reason.

Neti pots are not on the equipment manager's typical shopping list. It is a device for irrigating the nasal passages, and if you're wondering what that has to do with making quality pitches, MacDougal is happy to explain.

Last season, while recovering from hip labrum surgery and pitching for the Triple-A affiliate of the Cardinals, MacDougal was stricken by the mother of all sinus infections and it wouldn't go away. He was hospitalized, tested for allergies, Valley Fever, the whole nine yards, but there never was a confident diagnosis. Even when he went back to work and earned a callup to St. Louis, he said he was "dizzy and disoriented."

But his dad read something about a neti pot and MacDougal, by now a reliever desperate for relief, tried it over the winter.

"I think it really helped," he said. "You use this spray every 25 minutes for three days and now I'm feeling good. I hadn't been able to eat, I was down to 160 pounds from 185, I couldn't run or lift, and being a skinny guy I have to do that. I couldn't function. Now I feel as good as I've ever felt. I got a nutritionist and changed my eating, eliminated gluten and I take natural supplements. The key for me to pitch good is to be healthy."

MacDougal also has accepted suggestions from Honeycutt and Howell on controlling his weight transfer during the windup to stay on line toward home plate and reduce his tendency to fly open, which leads to wildness.

Ah yes, the wildness. It has hounded MacDougal ever since he was a first-round pick by the Royals in 1999. He had his greatest success with Kansas City, but also some of his lowest moments. Like in 2001, just called up to the big leagues at season's end for a cup of coffee, and instead, he got a fractured skull.

He was in the dugout talking to a teammate when a bat flew out of the hands of Kansas City's Carlos Beltran and nailed MacDougal on the left side of his head, the concussion leaving his fingertips numb for years.

"I couldn't hold a pen to sign my name at the hospital," he said.

Originally a starting pitcher, the pitch count he was given while recovering from that horrible incident led to his conversion to a relief pitcher full-time by 2003, when he saved 27 games and was an All-Star as a rookie.

He also saved 21 games in 2005 for the Royals and 20 for Washington in 2009.

In between, though, he had seasons like 2004 and 2007 when he tried to pitch through shoulder pain. He left the Royals midway through 2006 in a trade to the White Sox and he pitched so well for them -- 1.80 ERA in 25 games -- they gave him a three-year, $6.45 million contract.

"Most times when I haven't done well, I haven't felt well," he said.

After being left off the 2008 postseason roster, MacDougal had a bad April and was released by the White Sox. He signed with the Nationals and saved 20 games as their closer, but was non-tendered at the end of the year after undergoing hip labrum surgery.

He signed with the Marlins in 2010 and said he probably rushed back from the surgery. He opted out during Spring Training and he went back to Washington's Triple-A team before opting out again July 1 and hooking on with the Cardinals.

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