Dodgers really need Rafael Furcal
Veteran's return could come Sunday and might take some pressure off others
CHICAGO -- The fact the world didn't end Saturday was potentially only the second-best news of the weekend for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Within an hour after their latest failure to put up much of a fight, resulting in a 9-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox before 25,519 at U.S. Cellular Field, there came an encouraging sign that their most important player, shortstop Rafael Furcal, might be back in the lineup Sunday.
Note that I didn't say their best player, their most valuable player or even their most dependable player -- simply their most important player. Because if you have watched this team in the six weeks since Furcal broke his left thumb on a headfirst slide April 11, there is no question this lineup, and by extension this team, has been hopelessly adrift without him at the top of the order.
First, an update.
Furcal, who has been rehabilitating at Triple-A Albuquerque for the past week, is good to go with the thumb. The only remaining hurdle is his left knee, which he injured, yes, on a slide into second base during one of those rehab games. After arriving here Saturday, rejoining the team for the first time since he left for that rehab assignment, he tested the knee twice, running hard before the game and again after.
At that point, Furcal declared himself ready for action ... with a qualifier.
"It still depends on how I feel in the morning," he said.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said it probably will be a game-time decision, but the guess here is Furcal will be the first batter to come to the plate in Sunday's rubber match of this three-game interleague series. For one thing, the Dodgers desperately need him. For another, infielder Juan Uribe, who strained an abdominal muscle Friday night, appears destined for the disabled list even if his injury won't take 15 days to heal. The Dodgers are so injury-depleted already, they simply can't afford to play another man short if Uribe is day to day, a status already ascribed to infielder Aaron Miles because of a mild rib-cage strain.
"Basically, I just don't want a situation where I put [Furcal] in the lineup and then have to take him out," Mattingly said.
So, officially, the decision on Furcal will be much more about Furcal's fitness to play than about the Dodgers' need for him to play. But the Dodgers (21-26) desperately need him, not only because they aren't scoring runs but because those injuries to Uribe and Miles left them with two available position players on their bench in outfielder Tony Gwynn and backup catcher Dioner Navarro.
But getting Furcal back is about so much more than having enough warm bodies to play a game, and while he isn't the type to brag, nobody knows that more than Furcal.
"It's time to make something happen," he said. "I can't tell you that we're going to win or that I'm going to be the hero, but we're going to do the best we can. That is why it makes me so mad when I see we're losing by one or two runs. I want to be here supporting my teammates. I want to be here."
It isn't as if Furcal was lighting up the league when he got hurt. If anything, he was slumping. He was hitting .192, with an on-base percentage (.250) far below par for a savvy, veteran leadoff man to whom an entire lineup looks to light a spark. The Dodgers have averaged just a half-run a game more when Furcal has played (four) than when he hasn't (3.5). It's more about his impact on the rest of the lineup.
In the seven games Furcal has played this season, the Dodgers are 5-2. In all others, they are 16-24. This feeds into the rather intangible notion that the Dodgers are simply a better team, both offensively and defensively, with him in the lineup. And if nothing else, just the psychological edge that comes from having him in the leadoff spot should relieve some of the pressure from the big hitters in the middle, who clearly have been pressing in recent days while the Dodgers have had to basically scratch and claw for every run.
Moreover, once Furcal returns to the lineup, Casey Blake should be right behind him. He is expected to begin a rehabilitation assignment with Albuquerque as early as Sunday, his first game action since undergoing surgery to clean out a staph infection.
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Still, you have to wonder if the Dodgers are putting all their eggs in a basket weaved from less than the strongest wicker. Once they get those guys back, after all, how long can they really count on keeping them? Both Furcal and Blake have a recent history of injuries. Blake is on the DL for the second time this season, and he has had a slew of day-to-day injuries since joining the Dodgers midway through the 2008 season. Furcal's DL stint is his fifth in six seasons with the Dodgers, all five of them having far exceeded the 15-day minimum.
If Uribe goes on the DL retroactive to Saturday, the soonest the Dodgers could get their full projected lineup on the field together at the same time would be June 6, and that is assuming neither Furcal, Blake nor anybody else suffers an injury in the meantime. Given the way the season has gone for the Dodgers -- Uribe stands to become the 12th player to go on the DL in what would be the 15th move by the club to put a player there -- there is a lot of assuming going on on the part of anyone who believes Furcal's return will be any kind of panacea or godsend.
For better or worse, though, for a Dodgers team that hasn't been able to put together any kind of run of consistency for weeks now, it is at least comforting to know Furcal's return is at hand. It will be a while before we really know what it means, or if it means anything. But for a club that is desperate for some good news, for something to cling to, getting Furcal back means a little bit of hope.
And given that the world didn't end Saturday, and that as a result the Dodgers still have 115 games to play, hope is something they're going to need going forward.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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