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Dreifort Puts All His Starts in Alignment

Subtle adjustment in mechanics has made all the difference for Dodger right-hander in successful comeback from his latest major elbow surgery.

May 27, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — It's hard to imagine there being a bright side to undergoing a second ligament replacement surgery on your pitching elbow, sitting out for a year and a half and enduring month after month of grueling physical therapy, but Dodger right-hander Darren Dreifort found one.

"The unfortunate bonus of having 'Tommy John' surgery is you get to start all over again," said Dreifort, who is making a strong case for National League comeback player of the year honors. "You get to do things right from day one."

Dreifort, 31, did not radically alter his delivery. He didn't go from a power pitcher to a finesse pitcher. He didn't pick up a trick pitch. But a subtle change in mechanics, something akin to a front-end alignment, has made a huge difference in a comeback that seems to be gaining momentum with every start.

"Almost all the guys [around the league] are saying that [Dodger right-hander Kevin Brown] and Dreif are the two guys they don't want to face right now because they can embarrass you all the time," Dodger catcher Paul Lo Duca said.

"Dreif's throwing the ball 95 mph right out of the gate, and that ball is heavy. It's like a bowling ball coming in. His slider is just unbelievable; it's going every which way. He's electric."

Had Dreifort not pulled the plug on his old pitching style, he might not be generating such glowing reviews and taking a 4-3 record and 3.30 earned-run average into his next start, against the Colorado Rockies Thursday in Coors Field.

Many thought Dreifort would ease the strain on his elbow and shoulder by aligning the plant foot in his delivery more toward home plate and less toward third base, but that's only one of the benefits of the adjustment he made after his July 9, 2001 elbow surgery.

"It's a more fluid delivery, everything is more direct to the target rather than throwing across your body," Dreifort said. "I'm not as stiff and sore after games as I used to be. I haven't had to work as hard to get the ball where I want it to go."

This was not an adjustment that began when Dreifort started throwing off a mound last summer, a comeback that was derailed by surgery on his right knee. It began the first day Dreifort tossed a baseball after elbow surgery and was reinforced by Dodger coaches and medical personnel every time Dreifort picked up a ball.

"There were a lot of people out there making sure I didn't get sloppy," Dreifort said. "Even if I was playing catch from 30 feet, they wanted me to do it the right way."

Nor was this adjustment mastered overnight. Dreifort's mechanics were a little out of whack from the time the Dodgers plucked him out of Wichita State with the second pick of the 1993 draft throughout a Dodger career that spanned eight big league seasons, including one he sat out after his first Tommy John surgery in 1995.

"It's not easy to change your mechanics, and maybe he wouldn't have been able to do it if he wasn't in a position where he could start over," Dodger pitching coach Jim Colborn said. "He's a better pitcher now than he was before he got hurt in terms of mechanics, of maturity, of executing his pitches.

"His movement toward the plate is a little more direct. He's in better alignment. He's not slinging the ball as much, so he's getting better leverage with his body."

The result has been a fastball that seems to be jumping out of his hand and generating more late movement and a slider that has more bite. Dreifort has struck out 65 in 57 1/3 innings -- including a career-high 12 in his last start, against the Rockies last Thursday -- and walked 21.

He has provided the Dodgers with seven quality starts (six innings or more, three earned runs or fewer) in nine games, limited opponents to a .227 batting average and allowed no homers in his last four starts after allowing one in each of his first five games.

The Dodgers were heavily criticized for signing Dreifort to a five-year, $55.4-million contract before the 2001 season -- Dreifort had a 39-45 career record at the time -- but in the third year of the deal, after two years of disappointment, inactivity and uncertainty, Dreifort is paying dividends.

"To come back and throw the ball the way he's throwing is unbelievable," said Brown, who has come back strong from back and elbow surgeries of his own. "No one's been through more than he has. I mean, how many guys have had two Tommy John surgeries? Not very many.

"There was a lot of dedication on his part to stick with the day-in, day-out grind of rehabilitation. That's a lot of lonely, long days. You have to tip your hat to him."

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*--* On a Roll After a slow start in April, Darren Dreifort has turned it around in May. A look: Month IP ER BB SO W-L ERA April 31 13 13 33 1-3 3.77 May 26 1/3 8 8 32 3-0 2.73 Overall 57 1/3 21 21 65 4-3 3.30

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