Furcal gives Dodgers 'shot in the arm'
About to give up on season, shortstop works his way back
LOS ANGELES -- In a meeting with Dodgers officials Sept. 13 in Denver, Rafael Furcal quit. His body wouldn't heal and he was pulling the plug on his disaster of a season.
It was a little more than five months after he aggravated a bulging disc in his back, 2 1/2 months after the surgery that was needed to repair it. The back had rebounded well enough to allow most baseball activities, but he couldn't run. Nerve damage from the pressure of the disk left his hamstring area feeling weak and his psyche just as injured.
His game is speed and he didn't have any, so he decided to get out of town and out of the way of a team on a roll.
"He was frustrated by his lack of advancement, I guess," recalled Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti. "We explained that the season might not be over in 15 days, and even if he wasn't ready for the first round of the postseason, he might be ready when we made out a roster if we advanced to the next round. We told him to give it a whirl. He said he was flying out the next day. We told him he didn't need to do that."
As the Cubs would witness, Furcal changed his mind.
"They're the bosses," Furcal said of his meeting with Colletti and manager Joe Torre. "I did what they said."
In so doing, he had a sudden breakthrough while doing running drills the final week of the regular season. After missing 125 games, he returned to game action Sept. 24. With no Minor League rehabilitation assignment available, he started the last four games against San Diego and San Francisco after the Dodgers clinched the NL West title, going 2-for-9. Torre added him to the postseason roster, even though it meant messing with a winning combination.
"I told them I was leaving because I didn't feel like it was me out there and they were fighting for the pennant, and I didn't want to feel like I was in rehab while they were trying to get to the postseason," said Furcal. "I was frustrated. No matter how hard I work, it wouldn't go away. The doctor told me that one day I would wake up and it would be gone. But when?"
Just in time, as it turned out. Furcal started all three games of the NL Division Series. He went 4-for-12 with three walks (.467 on-base percentage) and scored four of the Dodgers' 20 runs, at least one in each game.
|"He puts pressure on a defense. You don't know if he'll slug, slap or bunt. He has excellent speed. He can steal second or third. ... I always enjoyed having him behind me. He's always been one of my favorite players. Pitchers love guys that catch the ball."|
|-- Greg Maddux, on Rafael Furcal|
He looked a lot like the Furcal that was the Dodgers' best player the first five weeks of the season, hitting .366 with five homers and a Major League-leading 34 runs scored. He had reached base safely his first 30 games, becoming the first Dodger to do that since Hall of Famer Duke Snider.
As a leadoff hitter and a shortstop, Furcal fills two crucial, yet highly skilled, roles. That's why Colletti was willing to overpay for Furcal when he signed the free agent to a three-year, $39 million contract. He hit .300 with 113 runs scored his first season and played the entire 2007 season limited from the aftereffects of an ankle badly sprained in Spring Training.
With free agency looming again, Furcal was primed and off to a career year when on May 4 he ranged onto the outfield grass to backhand a sharp grounder by David Wright of the Mets and threw a rocket across his body to record the out.
But as the night wore on, Furcal's back tightened and the next morning he couldn't get out of bed. While Furcal had a pair of rehab assignments wiped out by setbacks, the Dodgers started four replacements at shortstop -- Angel Berroa, Nomar Garciaparra, Chin-lung Hu and Luis Maza. Berroa stabilized the position during the team's September comeback, but it was always going to be Furcal's position if and when he could play it.
Greg Maddux, as a teammate of Furcal's in Atlanta and Los Angeles, as well as an opponent earlier this year, understands the considerations Philadelphia has preparing for a Dodgers team with Furcal this week compared to without Furcal in August.
"He puts pressure on a defense," said Maddux. "You don't know if he'll slug, slap or bunt. He has excellent speed. He can steal second or third. He puts pressure on pitchers. Defensively, he's got a lot of range and an excellent arm. He can take away hits. He's fun to play with. I always enjoyed having him behind me. He's always been one of my favorite players. Pitchers love guys that catch the ball."
Derek Lowe again drew from his most pleasant baseball memories and compared Furcal to a similar catalyst, Johnny Damon.
"I remember in Boston, if Johnny Damon did something, we won. It was amazing," said Lowe. "And Furky is that guy for us. He's vocal, high-energy, he gets on base and gets things started for us. Nobody knew he'd be back and nobody expected he'd be back like this. You saw the other night, when the pitcher [Rich Harden] threw away a pickoff because he was worried about him. He really gave us a shot in the arm."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.