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With Guerrero Healthy, L.A. Should Contend

April 06, 1987|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — One day early last week, Pedro Guerrero walked out of the Dodgers' training room with ice bags strategically attached to four parts of his body, making him move about as swiftly as a glacier.

There was nothing particularly wrong with Guerrero that day. It was as if the Dodgers figured that keeping their slugger refrigerated would ward off any injury that might possibly occur.

You cannot blame them for such preventive measures. The Dodgers suffered through the Big Chill last season when Guerrero tore up his left knee at the end of spring training and missed most of what became a miserable season.

Guerrero's ruptured tendon, which sapped much of the club's offensive power, turned out to be only the first of a series of injuries to Dodger regulars, the most serious and prolonged of the others striking Mike Marshall, Bill Madlock and Mariano Duncan.

Combine the injuries with the multiple fractures in the Dodger defense, which led the National League in errors with 181, and anemic efforts by a few healthy players, and it easily translates into a sickly 73-89 record and a fifth-place finish in the National League West.

A healthy Guerrero does not assure the Dodgers a division title, but it certainly is a good start. In 1985, when the Dodgers won the West, Guerrero hit 33 home runs, batted .320 and led the league in slugging average and on-base percentage.

"This guy is an awesome player, let's not forget about that," Manager Tom Lasorda said. "He's one of the select few players who can carry a club. He makes an impression, positive or negative, on all of us."

Because of Guerrero and other factors, the Dodgers have been wired on a positive current all spring.

"I would never want to go through another season like that," Al Campanis, Dodger vice president, said. "We got a lot better club than people think. We just got to stay healthy."

There is reason to believe the Dodgers will improve over last season, which isn't exactly a feat since they matched the club's worst record in Los Angeles (1967).

But the extent of that improvement remains to be seen, with these factors critical to the Dodgers' chances in the West:

--Production from Guerrero, Marshall and others who rarely strayed from the trainer's room last season.

--Improvement from the relief pitching corps, which includes Ken Howell, Tom Niedenfuer and new addition Matt Young, a left-handed short reliever who is this season's replacement for Steve Howe.

--More reliability from a defense (especially at shortstop, third base and center field) that led the National League in errors the last two seasons.

--Continued success from Fernando Valenzuela, who became a 20-game winner last season for the first time in his career, and a return to 1985 form by Orel Hershiser, whose record fell from 19-3 two years ago to 14-14 last season while his earned-run average soared.

--Someone in center field, whether it be Ken Landreaux, rookie Mike Ramsey or a trade possibility, who can combine strong defense with adequate offense.

If all--or most--of that happens, the Dodgers will be able to reclaim the Western Division title that has belonged to them every odd year so far this decade ('81, '83, '85). If not, then the club is facing the unsettling prospect of consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the 1967-68 seasons.

Failure for the second straight season probably would translate into a significant decrease in attendance, which still surpassed 3 million last season but went down by nearly a quarter-million from 1985. And if you thought the Dodgers made a lot of changes this winter . . .

But that's taking the negative approach, which is not the Dodger philosophy.

Besides, sweeping changes are not the Dodgers' style, especially when everyone from owner Peter O'Malley to Campanis and Lasorda is convinced that injuries were the dominant reason for the club's 1986 demise.

Based strictly on Guerrero's spring-training performance, management seems convinced that he has completely returned to his pre-injury form. More important, they say, is that the old obstinate Guerrero attitude has softened since he has turned 30.

Guerrero arrived in Vero Beach, Fla., two days before his teammates, played in more than half the spring games, batted .356 and seemed to run without favoring his left leg. Guerrero did not slide at all during spring training games, even when the situation called for it, but he says he will slide when it is necessary once the season starts.

This is the new, accommodating Guerrero, or so it appears. Guerrero, pronouncing himself fit, is eager to start the season.

"I feel ready for the real games," Guerrero said. "I'm hitting the ball real good, maybe it's because I came early (to spring training). I can't say (whether) I'm going to have a good start, because I never had a good start.

"I'm just thinking to myself, 'Be healthy and go out there and play.' I just want to make it to the first game."

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