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Rafael Furcal's lack of pain has been Dodgers' gain

A year ago the Dodgers shortstop was still feeling effects of back surgery, and it showed in his play against Phillies in NLCS. This year he's back at full strength, and that shows, too.

October 12, 2009|Dylan Hernandez

ST. LOUIS — When the first of the champagne bottles were uncorked in the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium on Saturday night, Rafael Furcal had his arms wrapped around a stocky, middle-aged man.

The man was Stan Conte, the Dodgers' trainer.

Furcal was headed back to the National League Championship Series -- and this time, he said, he felt like he had a chance. Conte was a reason why.

Furcal said he wasn't in pain.

He said that he felt sure of himself and that his timing was back.

"Incredible," Furcal said, champagne dripping down his forehead. "I thank God. I always stayed positive, regardless of how I was doing. I showed up no matter how I felt, no matter how I was hitting. Now, we're here. I'm hoping that upcoming series will be a good one."

Fifteen months removed from a major back operation, Furcal was six for 12 in the Dodgers' three-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in an NL division series, with two runs scored and two runs batted in.

The NLCS opens Thursday at Dodger Stadium -- the Dodgers will face either the Philadelphia Phillies or Colorado Rockies -- and Furcal said he intends to make up for what happened at this stage a year ago.

"I can't tell you that I was 100% last year," he said.

But the Dodgers were desperate.

In the middle of last September, the Dodgers were in Colorado when Furcal walked into the manager's office to speak with Joe Torre and General Manager Ned Colletti.

Inactive for more than four months at the time, Furcal hadn't been recovering from his July operation the way he'd wanted.

"He was in tears and wanted to go home," Colletti said. "He couldn't get over the last hurdle."

But Torre asked him to try sticking around a little longer.

Colletti said the same.

"Look, we're in no hurry," Colletti recalled telling Furcal. "We just want you back. Relax. If it's not until the last couple days, it's not until the last couple days."

Furcal agreed to stay.

He returned to the field in the final week of the regular season and made the Dodgers' playoff roster.

He started every game of the Dodgers' three-game division-series sweep of the Chicago Cubs, batting leadoff and scoring four runs.

Then came the NLCS, and the fairy tale was ruined by reality.

"When you lose almost the entire season -- I lost about 500 at-bats -- you don't feel right," Furcal said.

In Game 1 of the series in Philadelphia, a throwing error by Furcal sparked a three-run rally for the home team that cost the Dodgers a 2-0 lead. The Phillies won, 3-2.

The deciding game was worse.

With the Dodgers trailing in the best-of-seven series, 3-1, Furcal made two errors, one fielding and one throwing, on the same fifth-inning play, leading to a Phillies run.

He made another throwing error later in that inning.

Philadelphia scored another run.

The Dodgers were down, 5-0. Soon, their season would be over.

"No one felt worse than I did," he said. "I felt awful making those errors. I felt like I couldn't help my team."

For most of this season, Furcal still looked like a player trying to work his way back into form.

Under the eyes of Conte and strength coach Brendan Huttmann, Furcal performed daily exercises designed to prevent him from reinjuring his back.

He stayed healthy but wasn't hitting well, batting .250 as late as July 20.

Torre said hitting coach Don Mattingly said that Furcal's body was moving too much in the batter's box.

"Most of the year, it looked like he was getting too big and too long and trying to hit the ball too hard," Torre said.

"It was like he was trying to get three hits every time at bat. He was putting a lot of pressure on himself," he added.

But late in the season, Furcal started to regain his rhythm.

He batted .330 in the final month of the regular season, including .429 over the last two weeks.

He reached base safely in each of his last 24 games.

Furcal reached base in each of the three games against the Cardinals in the division series.

"Right now, his body language is good," Torre said. "He's using his hands a lot more. He's more patient at the plate. He's using the whole field."

Furcal said he never lost faith in himself.

But what he says he most appreciates is how Torre stuck with him.

Furcal didn't lead off for most of May and all of June, but regained his place atop the order in July -- at a time he was hitting only .250.

"He never lost faith in me," Furcal said.

That faith could be rewarded this week.

"I'm ready," Furcal said.

--

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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