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BASEBALL

Injury prevention is key for Dodgers

The team is one of seven that are projected to finish the season with six or more players with 500 plate appearances. Of those teams, only the Houston Astros have a losing record.

September 11, 2009|Dylan Hernandez

Rafael Furcal tapped his knuckles on the armrest of his chair.

"I can say that the only games I was forced to sit out this season had nothing to do with my back," he said. "I had an extremely complicated surgery. It wasn't easy to come back."

Looking off into the distance, Furcal recalled his off-season workout program. He talked about the two rounds of special exercises he does every day to prevent a reoccurrence of the back problems that haunted him last season -- the first round, shortly after showing up at the ballpark; the second, after batting practice. He says he has learned to appreciate how the team's medical staff persuaded Manager Joe Torre to sit him once a week in the early part of the season.

"What the trainers here did for me was incredible," Furcal said. "Most people don't recognize what they do. But I do. I appreciate everything they've done for me."

The Dodgers head into their crucial three-game series in San Francisco today with Randy Wolf, Clayton Kershaw, Casey Blake and Jim Thome recovering from injuries -- but even counting that, the Dodgers have been one of the healthier teams in baseball this season.

Or so they have appeared to be.

There are no publicly available records that can accurately measure a team's health because there is no official distinction between the disabled list and what is known in baseball circles as the "Phantom DL" -- a place where numerous players are sent not because they are hurt, but because their teams want to open a roster spot for someone else.

Yet when studying the medical history of the teams, Dodgers head trainer Stan Conte said he noticed how the Atlanta Braves were able to field similar lineups on a regular basis in any given season during the stretch in which they won nine consecutive division titles from 1996 to 2004.

"Six of eight position players were consistently over 500 plate appearances," said Conte, who was the Giants' head trainer for seven seasons. "Three of their five starters made over 30 appearances."

Meeting those standards has become the Dodgers' goal -- and Conte's habit of talking about it so often has become a joke of sorts among his staff. And the goal is suddenly within reach.

Including Furcal, there are seven Dodgers with 500 plate appearances this season. The only regular position player who didn't reach the benchmark was Manny Ramirez, who was suspended for 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy.

Wolf has made 30 starts. Chad Billingsley has to make one more start to get there and Kershaw two.

In general, better teams appear to be healthier teams, Conte said.

Of the seven teams that are projected to finish the season with six or more players with 500 plate appearances, only the Houston Astros have a losing record.

The other six? The Dodgers, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Florida Marlins, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.

The teams with the fewest such players? The Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets, Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Mets have 12 players on the disabled list, including Johan Santana, Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, J.J. Putz, Oliver Perez and Gary Sheffield.

"The lucky part of this game is staying healthy," Torre said.

But how much of this is luck?

When he was signed to a three-year contract in October 2006, Conte said, he set out to assemble a medical staff that shared his belief that luck was only a small part of why players got or stayed injured.

Of the trainers on the major league staff, massage therapist Ichiro Tani is the only holdover from the pre-Conte days. Strength and conditioning coach Brendan Huttmann and assistant trainer Todd Tomczyk were hired out of the Cleveland Indians organization. Rick Lembo, who worked with Conte in the Giants organization, was hired out of private practice. Neal ElAttrache replaced Frank Jobe as team physician. Sue Falsone became the team's physical therapist, the first female to hold that title in the major leagues. And most of the minor league trainers have been replaced.

Conte said that while some teams use training programs as a means to enhance player performance, the Dodgers emphasize ways to keep the players healthy.

The numbers seem to favor Conte's theory that prevention is the key. From 2004 to '06, the Dodgers had a total of eight players who had 500 plate appearances in a single season. Over the last three years, 17 players reached that mark.

"I can tell you this," Conte said. "A player on the DL can't get better. Especially in the minor leagues, injuries sidetrack development."

ElAttrache and Conte haven't shied away from using experimental procedures when treating players, most notably the use of platelet rich plasma. Takashi Saito, Claudio Vargas and Billingsley have received the treatment, in which blood is drawn from a patient, spun to isolate healing-promoting platelets and are injected into the site of the injury.

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