Rafael Furcal plays baseball one way

ANAHEIM -- I had a long chat with Rafael Furcal before the game on Sunday night, in a hallway leading to the visiting clubhouse at Angel Stadium. Not an interview, just a chat, the kind of conversation reporters and athletes have almost every day in which the notebook is closed, and there is a general understanding that what's said is seldom subject to being written or reported.

However, after watching Furcal's mostly triumphant return from the disabled list -- it wasn't really triumphant for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to the Los Angeles Angels as usual, 3-1 before 42,536 at Angel Stadium -- I feel compelled to share one snippet from that conversation. It illustrates exactly who this player is, and why I have gotten so much enjoyment out of watching him almost every day for the past six seasons, as well as why I will miss watching him play if impending free agency takes him elsewhere next winter.

"I only know one way to play this game," he said. "I can't go out there and hold back. It's no fun to play baseball that way."

It was a little bit of a cringe-worthy statement, given Furcal's current state. He is 33, but apparently an old 33. The body is becoming increasingly unforgiving to, and uncooperative toward, the man living inside it. He was coming off his second DL stint this year and his fourth in the past two seasons, and to be brutally honest, there isn't a whole lot of reason to think there won't be a fifth at some point.

That is where Furcal's unyielding approach to the game comes in. If you talk to team officials, both medical and otherwise, they will privately admit that the way Furcal plays is the reason he is always hurt. But the way he plays is also what makes him so valuable when he is in the lineup, and the Dodgers aren't very good without him.

That isn't to suggest, of course, that they are all that good with him. He went 1-for-4 in his return, and the Dodgers still scored only one run and still went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Chad Billingsley had so little margin for error that one bad pitch was enough to wreck a complete-game, three-hit performance that will go down as one of his best of the season.

What Furcal does offer the Dodgers is hope. When it's almost the All-Star break, you are in last place and you are 11 games below .500 and you have to muster the energy, both mental and physical, to drag yourself to the ballpark to deal with the daunting task of facing major league pitching every day, hope alone is worth something.

Still, it's a lot to put on one guy, especially a guy whose best days would seem to be behind him, to expect him to be the miracle cure to an offense that has been sick pretty much all season, both with and without Furcal.

"For me, I love it when the fans say that," Furcal said after the game, when the notebooks were out. "They missed me, and I missed the game too. I love to play baseball. They're not trying to put any pressure on anybody. All I have to do is keep going and try to stay healthy the rest of the year."

Furcal's first game back offered all the tests to show that, for the moment, he can hold up to the rigors of big league ball. He had seven assists, a staggering number even for a shortstop, and he handled all of them flawlessly -- including, and most importantly, a grounder in the hole by the speedy Peter Bourjos that Furcal had to backhand, plant and throw across his body. He had no reaction from the left oblique muscle that had kept him sidelined for the previous month.

He reached base once, pulling a single through the right side. Then, passing another test, he stole second and slid in headfirst, again with no discomfort. Fittingly, he then scored the Dodgers' only run of the game, on a two-out double by James Loney.

Furcal batted second, behind Tony Gwynn Jr., instead of his usual leadoff spot, manager Don Mattingly's rationale being that Gwynn has been hot lately and the switch-hitting Furcal separates the lefty-hitting Gwynn and Andre Ethier in the order so an opposing manager can't bring in a left-handed reliever to face both of them.

After the game, by which time Gwynn suddenly was hitless in his past eight at-bats with four strikeouts, Mattingly said he probably will leave it that way for now.

But this latest loss, after which the Dodgers (37-48) remained 11 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants in the National League West, left a couple of key questions still unanswered. First, how long can Furcal, who in his own words can't play any other way except all-out all the time, stay in the lineup? And second, is this dud-ridden lineup really any better with him in it anyway?

This much can't be disputed: Furcal, whose main job even in the two-hole is to get on base as often as he can, is hitting .214 for the season, with a .247 on-base percentage.

"Sometimes, I think I try to do too much," Furcal said after the game. "Like the last time I came back, I really tried to do too much. This time, I feel much more relaxed. I just want to see more pitches and try to get on base. I feel much better this time."

If he can continue to feel that way, maybe the rest of the Dodgers lineup can start feeling pretty good too. But if the Dodgers are expecting Furcal to be the difference maker, well, that is a lot to ask of a guy who makes you hold your breath every time he lunges for a ball, makes a headfirst slide or chases a pop fly into foul territory.