Furcal firing at peak performance

Late-season push has Furcal humming

LOS ANGELES -- Here's what Greg Maddux, a former teammate and opponent, said about Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal.

"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."

Here's the problem with Maddux's comments, from a Dodgers perspective. He said it just before last year's National League Championship Series, in which Furcal hit .219 and committed four errors, three in one inning of Philadelphia's clinching Game 5 (two on the same play) when he was limited by a stiff neck.

That nightmare series came only days after Furcal was the sparkplug in the Dodgers' three-game sweep of the Cubs in the NL Division Series, in which few expected Furcal to even be a factor after he underwent back surgery in July.

So here are the Dodgers again, facing the Phillies in the LCS again, with Furcal coming off a big first-round series again.

Why will Furcal bring his "A" game against the Phillies this year after failing last year?

"Because I'm healthy," said Furcal, who turns 32 later this month.

There's little doubt about Furcal's importance to the Dodgers in his dual role as leadoff hitter/shortstop.

"To me, the middle of the lineup is only effective if the guys on top of the lineup can get on base and put pressure on pitchers," said manager Joe Torre. "Rafael brings so much to the table. He's got so much more life in his body here over the last month or six weeks that has really made a difference in how we've played and how we've been able to score runs. He's sort of added another dimension to what we were doing earlier."

He went 6-for-12 with two runs scored and two driven in against the Cardinals in the NLDS, continuing a hot stretch that began over the final two weeks of the regular season, when Furcal hit .429. But that raised his overall average to a career-low .269, as he spent the year searching for his timing and rhythm at the plate after missing most of 2008.

"You look at his body of work since, especially the last month or so, he's been as good as he's ever been," said general manager Ned Colletti. "He's healthy and feeling confident in what he's able to do."

As an example, Furcal went the first five months this season with only nine steal attempts and had seven in the last two weeks of the season. Six of his stolen bases came before Sept. 14, the other six came in the final 16 games.

"I was afraid a little bit in the first half," he said. "When I wanted to steal, I don't want to dive too much on the bases. A ground ball in the hole, I didn't want to dive to catch the ball. Now I know nothing happens. Now my back is 100 percent, better than it was before the surgery. The last month, I feel strong again and I have my balance."

Surgery to repair a herniated disk not only disabled Furcal for nearly five months last year, but it became a lingering handicap this year, trainer Stan Conte said.

"When this year started he had no pain or discomfort, but there was a lack of confidence, especially in the field and on the bases," said Conte. "I was very concerned that the first year back would be the toughest. I knew if he played enough, he would turn back into Raffy Furcal, but I didn't know when. From a risk standpoint, he was looking at potentially an up-and-down year. I expected the first half to be a challenge."

And it was a challenge offensively for Furcal, but he still scored 92 runs and Torre stuck with him, except for the dozen days off that all sides believe kept Furcal fresh enough to have something left in October.

"His batting average was not what he wanted it to be and he got himself out a lot, but the last four or five weeks he's seen more pitches and he has a better sense of what he can do."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.