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Dreifort Has Earned a Spot in Rotation

Watching Darren Dreifort’s comeback is a breathtaking experience.

He stops in the middle of his windup. You hold your breath.

“That?” he says later. “That wasn’t anything.”

He dives head-first in front of the dugout. You cover your mouth.

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“I was just backing up the play,” he says. “If you’re not going over there hard, it’s not worth going.”

He reaches down to tug idly on the sleeve of his right elbow. You grab for the inhaler.

“I appreciate everyone’s concern,” he protests. “But I don’t have any.”

Maybe not, but his first start at Dodger Stadium this season could possibly feature an outbreak of Dreifort-induced asthma.

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“Wonderful story, isn’t it?” says Dodger Manager Jim Tracy.

Knock on wood. Cross your fingers. From his lips to Big D’s ears.

In a move as uncertain as it is inspirational, Dreifort will begin the season as the Dodgers’ fifth starter.

His five splendid innings Monday against the St. Louis Cardinals here would have put those words in management’s mouth, if they weren’t so busy holding their breath.

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“The most interesting thing about Darren is still tomorrow,” says Tracy, who has yet to make the news official. “Tell me how he feels tomorrow.”

Attempting to become the first pitcher to rebound from two reconstructive “Tommy John” surgeries on the same elbow, Dreifort will be forever waiting for tomorrows.

But his bosses have decided to award his 1.96 spring earned-run average and let the egos fall where they may.

This means Andy Ashby, who pitched the third-most innings on the Dodgers last year and who has not thrown a relief pitch in a decade, will begin the season in the bullpen.

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You wanna tell him?

This also means that the Dodgers, after pitching injuries blindsided them last summer, will begin with two surgical rehabilitation cases in their rotation.

You wanna tell the bullpen?

It could be their feel-good tale of the season, something like the Eric Gagne emergence, but without the hair that looks like it’s been combed with a firecracker.

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It could also be an Orel Hershiser-sized bust.

There are 55 million reasons the Dodgers need to take this chance.

One more reason being, Dreifort deserves it.

With his contract already guaranteed, he could have gone through the comeback motions, but didn’t.

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With rehabilitation options closer to his Kansas home, he could have left the team, but he didn’t.

For the last 1 1/2 seasons, for every game at Dodger Stadium, the injured Dreifort would put on a uniform and sit on the bench and want to scream.

“It was so hard, just sitting there not able to help,” he recalls. “But it was the best seat in that house.”

That seat was plenty better Monday, and it looked like a different man was sitting there.

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Remember his awkward, flailing delivery? Dreifort has stuck it under a steam iron, flattening the motion, smoothing the throw.

Remember how his left leg used to land somewhere near the third-base coaching box, causing instructors to study his spike marks with a sigh? That foot now lands in the direction of -- ta-da -- home plate.

All the mechanical things that frustrated coaches tried to teach him early in his career, he has finally decided to do on his own. Guess it was nothing a couple of Tommy Johns couldn’t fix.

“From the first day I started playing catch after my surgery, I changed the way I threw,” he says. “I had to.”

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This was no small task for the once-stubborn, once-hotshot pitcher. Neither was agreeing this spring to pitch in the bullpen, even if it is a lousy option for a guy with an erector-set arm.

“I’ll go down there right now if they wanted me to,” he says. “Anything to win.”

His voice doesn’t have such an edge anymore. His attitude has lost much of its bluster. The kid who swaggered into Dodger Stadium nearly a decade ago will be 31 this summer.

“I look around here, and I don’t know how I could appreciate this any more,” he says as laughing and well-wishing teammates walk past.

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Age suits him well, in public and on the mound, where Monday he threw 41 strikes and just 18 balls while giving up only two unearned runs to a mostly major-league lineup. Most impressively, he recovered from a wild pitch and a couple of his infielder’s errors to work out of a jam.

“This is something else new we’re seeing,” Tracy says. “In the past, when mistakes would occur, sometimes a 2-1 score is suddenly 5-1. That didn’t happen to him today.”

When asked if he is raving, Tracy smiles.

“I’m just shy of raving about him,” Tracy says. “First, I want somebody to tell me tomorrow that he’s feeling fine.”

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And Tracy knows that on April 5, nobody is going to remember what happened in the previous month anymore than they can remember where to find Jupiter on a map.

April 5 is the likely date of Dreifort’s first start, when, for a moment, it will be difficult for anyone to hold their breath because of all the cheering.

Asked about the impact of Dreifort’s return, pitching coach Jim Colborn tells a story.

“It was 1978, in Kansas City, Steve Busby was coming from a serious injury,” recalls Colborn, a Royal pitcher at the time. “When he takes the mound for his first time, the entire team was energized. Everybody cheering, tears everywhere. I found myself getting real emotional like everyone else, which I couldn’t understand.”

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Colborn pauses.

“Because the guy had taken my job.”

Colborn said he understands now. So, soon, will the rest of the Dodgers.

Did we say knock on wood?

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.


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