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Dreifort Returns to Mound

Times Staff Writer

Darren Dreifort began his latest comeback attempt Saturday at Dodgertown, throwing off a mound for the first time since last May.

The injury-plagued right-hander threw 30 pitches while Dodger officials watched attentively, hoping Dreifort continues to make progress after twice undergoing surgery last season.

“It felt a little awkward but good,” said Dreifort, who had right knee surgery June 18 and an arthroscopic hip procedure Sept. 23.

“I’m just trying to get prepared for [opening day]. There’s nothing else really in my mind beyond that.”

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Dreifort is not participating in fielding drills because of concerns about the strength of his right knee, and the next step in his throwing program will be determined today.

Given Dreifort’s medical history (he has undergone seven surgeries as a professional), the Dodgers aren’t thinking too far ahead. Getting him through spring training is the goal.

“You have to take it day-by-day,” Manager Jim Tracy said. “We have to take baby steps and see how his knee reacts.”

Dreifort, 31, was 4-4 with a 4.03 earned-run average in 10 starts last season before being sidelined because of the injuries. He has eight victories in the first three seasons of a five-year, $55-million contract.

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The former No. 2 overall draft pick is 47-56 with a 4.36 ERA and 10 saves in nine-plus seasons. The Dodgers will pay Dreifort $12 million this season.

Dreifort is among the popular players in the clubhouse because of his determination and dedication to teammates, and the Dodgers are keeping their fingers crossed about his physical status.

“Medically, you just don’t know,” Tracy said. “You just don’t know how his body is going to respond with all the different things that he’s incurred over the years.”

The medical staff has recommended that Dreifort start because his twice-reconstructed pitching elbow might not hold up in a reliever’s role. But Tracy and Dreifort said all options were on the table.

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“Obviously, we’ve tried the starting thing and it has worked, other than [an elbow] blowout here or there,” Dreifort said. “We haven’t tried the relief route yet, but there’s no reason to think that either one of them wouldn’t be possible.

“It’s just a matter of training your body that way. I don’t have a problem relieving as long as I can contribute to the team in a positive way, not be a distraction and a liability and not put anybody else in jeopardy.”

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The Dodgers are taking things slowly with Hideo Nomo after the right-hander underwent shoulder surgery in the off-season.

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Nomo, already named the opening-day starter, appears to be on track after a good bullpen session.

With Tracy watching, Nomo displayed an effortless rhythm in his second bullpen session of the spring. He threw mostly fastballs and sliders.

“His fastball had some jump to it,” Tracy said. “He turned the dial up, and I know that the volume can go a little bit louder.”

Before undergoing surgery, Nomo had problems extending while pitching. He did not display similar problems Saturday, pleasing Tracy.

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“What I saw from his surgery was that his extension is much more free and easy,” Tracy said. “It’s much better than it was toward the latter part of last season.

“He extended effortlessly. It was really encouraging to watch.”

Nomo also started the opener last season, shutting out the Arizona Diamondbacks, 8-0, March 31 at Bank One Ballpark. Nomo said it was too early to think about opening day.

“We’re still at the early stage of spring training,” he said through an interpreter. “I just want to keep [building arm strength] and stay healthy.”

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With All-Star closer Eric Gagne expected to participate in workouts today, the Dodgers hope to close the door on his contract situation for now.

Tracy and others in the organization acknowledged Gagne was upset about losing in arbitration Thursday after the Dodgers renewed his contract last season. Gagne will receive $5 million this season instead of the $8 million he had sought.

New General Manager Paul DePodesta, who has not met Gagne, said he planned to sit down with him when he arrived, and agent Scott Boras planned to travel to Dodgertown soon to discuss the situation.

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Gagne’s teammates are confident he will put the issue aside for the good of the team.

“I really don’t think it will bother him because of who he is and how committed he is to this team,” catcher Paul Lo Duca said.


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