- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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LOS ANGELES -- He was the best player on the team. He carried them. He had more hits and scored more runs than anyone else in the National League. He was in the top five in batting average and on-base percentage. He was in the top 10 in OPS. He looked like an MVP. He seemed to make everyone else around him better. He lifted the mood in the clubhouse and was an inspiration on the field. For five weeks he was all that stood between the Dodgers and disappointment.
He was not Manny Ramirez in the fall.
He was Rafael Furcal in the spring.
Long before dread wigs became de rigueur in the pavilion seats at Dodger Stadium, Furcal was the guy who gave the home crowd something to believe in.
When he went down in the first week of May with a bulging disc in his lower back, the team lost a leader, a guy who set the tone for what the Dodgers wanted to be this season.
"This was a guy I couldn't get out of the lineup late in spring training games," says Dodgers manager Joe Torre. "He has a special talent, not only in his physical ability but in the leadership stuff."
After surgery in July and throughout rehab workouts in Arizona in the late summer, the pain persisted. It killed Furcal not to be out there shoulder to shoulder with his teammates. He missed 4½ months and 122 games in all. He watched the Dodgers stumble and swoon, above and below the .500 mark. He watched them lose eight games in a row between Aug. 22 and 29 and fall 4½ games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"I thought it was my fault, what was happening," he says. "I felt like I should be doing something to help them, and my body just wouldn't let me."
But he didn't give up. He kept working the physical therapy, kept taking swings and grounders, kept fighting off the pain. "I set myself a goal to get back," he says. "Not next year but this year, even if it's just for one game."
And get back he did, in time for nine at-bats in the last week of the regular season and, remarkably, in time to take his usual place, at the top of the lineup and at starting shortstop, collecting four hits and scoring four runs during the Dodgers' three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series.
"It's so exciting to be here," he says. "I've gone from nothing, from nowhere, to the playoffs."
It's not from nowhere, of course; it's from days and nights of doubt; from hours of surgery and rehabilitation; from some willful place most of us can't imagine.
"I'll tell you, it's not easy what he's doing," says Torre, admiring the way his shortstop has stepped back into the fray without so much as a single game of minor league rehab.
A lot has been written about the impact Ramirez has had on the Dodgers' fortunes in the last several weeks, and justifiably so, but it would be hard to overestimate the importance to this team at this time of having their springtime MVP back in uniform and back on the field.
"He's our sparkplug," says first baseman James Loney. "There are so many ways he can beat you, whether it's a bunt, a home run, a stolen base or a play with the glove."
"He's huge at the top of our lineup," Torre says, reflecting on Furcal's drag bunt base hit with the bases loaded in the Dodgers' 10-3 victory over the Cubs in Game 2 of the NLDS. "He's a game-breaker."
And it goes beyond the game on the field.
"He's a leader for us, always vocal, always keeping us loose," says right fielder Andre Ethier. "When one of us gets down, it's Raffy who picks us up. When we go flat, he lights a fire under us."
"His presence in the clubhouse, in the dugout -- I know it sounds kind of hokey -- but trust me, it really elevates the mood," Torre says.
Ask Furcal what it means to him to be back in the clubhouse and the dugout and it's the mood, the feeling, more than his success in the batter's box so far, he focuses on. "I'm part of things again," he says. "We are together. We are a team."
Watch him near the left-field foul line during an afternoon workout at Dodger Stadium on Monday -- stretching out the back and laughing along with buddies shortstop Angel Berroa and reliever Ramon Troncoso -- and you think: He's right. They are a team now.
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.