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Garciaparra isn't beyond hope

September 16, 2007|Bill Shaikin | SUNDAY REPORT

A single, and the Dodgers hope.

A home run, and the Dodgers hope.

Five consecutive hits, and the Dodgers hope.

The Dodgers cannot count on Nomar Garciaparra, but they can hope. It is the best they can do.

It is an odd and uncomfortable position, for the player and the team. He is one of the best hitters of his generation, and yet neither he nor the team has any idea whether he can carry the Dodgers, even just for two weeks and into the playoffs with his bat.

He had hits in his last three at-bats Friday and in his first two at-bats Saturday, and the Dodgers beat the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks on both days.

In the clubhouse, he shrugged. Two good days foretell nothing about his swing. He had two days on the bench before that, preceded by two bad days, with four strikeouts in six at-bats.

Two good days mean nothing, except on the scoreboard.

"All I worry about is winning," he said. "I'm just going out there and trying to produce runs any way we can, move guys over, whatever it takes."

We love Darin Erstad, but the Dodgers aren't paying Garciaparra to be Darin Erstad. They could use some power. They have one more home run than the Washington Nationals, fewer than any other team in the National League.

In Garciaparra, the Dodgers thought they had a big bat. In his heyday, he averaged 28 home runs and 45 doubles. Last year, he had 20 home runs and 31 doubles.

This year, he has seven home runs and 16 doubles. Juan Pierre has more extra-base hits.

Garciaparra had a home run and a double Friday, his first game with two extra-base hits since July 28. He had two extra-base hits in May, three in June, five in July. In August, he went on the disabled list because of a strained calf.

He is hitting .282, so he can still make contact. His power is not lost forever, according to batting coach Bill Mueller. In batting practice, Mueller says, the ball still flies.

Yet Garciaparra is a serial tinkerer with his swing. Garciaparra said he solicits advice from Mueller, his former teammate here and in Boston, and from a number of other people.

"When his mechanics are in place, he still has the power," Mueller said. "He's constantly making adjustments, trying to find the right position, the right spot.

"It's not so much the power that comes and goes. It's the mechanics."

Garciaparra made the same point, politely but forcefully.

"It has nothing to do with losing power," he said.

He is 34. He has been on the disabled list five times in four years, with no two injuries the same -- right foot, left groin, right side, right knee, left calf.

"Sometimes you can't prevent them," he said. "It's a byproduct of playing hard."

The Dodgers try to prevent them. Manager Grady Little gave Garciaparra extra days off this year, a move that made sense, but also a darned-if-you-do, darned-if-you-don't move for a player with an extraordinarily complicated swing.

"I don't think the average fan understands how hard it is to play, take a couple days off, play and still feel comfortable," pitcher Derek Lowe said, "especially if you're used to playing every day.

"His swing is still the same. His preparation is still the same. The older you get, it definitely gets harder."

Lowe saw Garciaparra at his best, in Boston, where he was a two-time batting champion and a five-time All-Star.

Those were happier days. The debate was not about whether Garciaparra could hit for power. The debate was about whether you would take Garciaparra over Derek Jeter as your shortstop, or whether you would take Miguel Tejada or Alex Rodriguez.

And, in Boston, the debate was about whether you would take Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens on the mound.

"Look at Pedro, and look at him now," Lowe said. "He was the best in the game. We'd all like to say we were the same player we were five or six years ago. In a lot of cases, age catches up to you."

This is no time for old age to strike, or injury. This is the time for Garciaparra to party like it's 1999.

"We're definitely counting on him to put up steady numbers the next two weeks," Lowe said. "The beauty of that is, a guy like him can get hot and carry us."

The Dodgers hope.

There is a debate in Los Angeles, about whether Garciaparra's career is winding down or whether he can reclaim his status as an elite player. That debate will not be settled in the next two weeks.

There is a hope, too, that Garciaparra can hit so well in the closing weeks of September that he can extend the Dodgers' season into October. That would be fitting, since he led the Dodgers into October last season but could barely walk when they got there.

The Dodgers played three postseason games last year and lost them all. Garciaparra completed the first game, hobbled off the field in the second game and pinch-hit in the third game. He would like a do-over, and so would the Dodgers.

They can hope.


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