LOS ANGELES – On a short workout day before the Dodgers and Phillies would begin the National League Championship Series, Rafael Furcal(notes) stopped in a dank Dodger Stadium hallway, for a moment allowing buddies Manny Ramirez(notes) and Ronnie Belliard(notes) to walk ahead.
Rafael Furcal hopes to erase bad memories from last season's NLCS, particularly Game 5.
He'd hit a little, taken a few grounders, loosened his arm, treated his lower back.
He was wearing sunglasses on one of the grayer days of the year, but smiling. See, while the game is inherently cruel, it has its forgiving moments.
On the anniversary of perhaps the worst baseball game he's ever played, Furcal will get another shot at the Philadelphia Phillies. He gets the rare do-over.
“I'm going to try to play better,” he said, all but bowing to the opportunity, “and try to help my team play better.”
Last Oct. 15, the Dodgers were trying to hold off the Phillies. The Phillies were trying to finish the Dodgers. The Phillies handed the ball to Cole Hamels(notes). A few hours later, the Phillies were on their way to the World Series and Furcal, revealing he'd played with a sore neck, felt responsible.
He'd made three errors in the same inning, two of them on the same play, leading to two runs, and a close game became a runaway. He'd come up four times and failed to drive the ball out of the infield, ending the series with a .211 batting average.
He'd worked so hard to recover from back surgery, so hard to recover his swing in the final, frantic days of the regular season, and then every pivotal part of the Dodgers' elimination game found and exposed him. He couldn't turn his head freely, couldn't throw the way he always had, and jabbed at grounders stiffly. That was the game he'd lug into winter, into free agency, potentially to another organization, and then finally back into spring training for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I gotta forget that,” he said. “It was a great disappointment for me, but now I gotta forget it.”
Seemingly, it's been a long time coming. In the regular season, Furcal batted a career-low .269. He stole only 12 bases. Joe Torre batted him second during Manny Ramirez's 50-game suspension, moving him out for Juan Pierre(notes), and even pushed him to seventh occasionally. He labored to smooth his stroke from the left side, finally got hot in July, hotter still in September, and in the division series against the Cardinals, Furcal batted .500, scored two runs and drove in two others.
“I think right now he's in a pretty good place,” Torre said. “I think he feels very confident and comfortable. … In Fukie's case, I just send him out there.”
Across the field, Jimmy Rollins(notes) batted .143 in the NLCS, but the Phillies won, and kept winning. He became a deserving champion, did the parade thing, and not for a moment did he think of Furcal, his fellow shortstop and leadoff hitter, because, he knew, it could have been any of them.
They came into the league within six months of each other in 2000. They piled power upon speed upon deft gloves. They played for years in the same NL East, saw each other all the time. And, still, as Furcal's game went to pieces a year ago today, Rollins saw only opportunity, and felt not an ounce of sympathy.
“Nope,” he said. “Not at all. Not from a competitive standpoint. Hey, I like Raffy. He's a good guy. Funny. I like the way he plays. But when it's for this, in competition, there's no time to feel sorry for anybody else.”
That's fair, of course. Furcal wouldn't have it another way, not even if Rollins, the former MVP, were to spend this entire season near or at career lows in batting (.250) and on-base percentage (.296), which he just did.
But, like Furcal, Rollins came to life later in the regular season (and still banged 21 home runs), got through a half-week's benching by Charlie Manuel, had a solid September, and against the Rockies had the infield single that started the series-winning rally Monday night.
Jimmy Rollins went 3-for-17 in last season's NLCS.
So the series, awash in sluggers, might not be entirely about Ryan Howard(notes) and Matt Kemp(notes), or about the Dodgers' lefties against the middle of the Phillies' order, or the rise of Clayton Kershaw(notes) or the Los Angeles curtain call of Pedro Martinez(notes).
Don't forget Furcal, and don't forget Rollins, the leadoff switch-hitters who can run games on both sides of the ball, who've started over in October.
Maybe that's true. But it does look like a fair fight.
“I'm feeling much better now,” Furcal said before catching up to Ramirez and Belliard.
Yeah, knowing they don't come around often, he's ready for the do-over.