While Andruw Jones will return to Turner Field today to face his former team as he tries to battle his way out of a slump that has made him the target of constant boos at Dodger Stadium, another ex-Brave will visit his old home in Atlanta on a 15-game tear that was unimaginable to him a year ago.
Free of the pain in his left ankle that hobbled him for an entire season, Rafael Furcal is hitting again.
Through the Dodgers’ 8-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday, Furcal was leading the majors in average (.407) and tied for the lead in on-base percentage (.500) and runs scored (15).
“I’d seen him on TV and I saw him in spring training the last couple of years, but I didn’t realize how good he was,” said Mike Easler, the Dodgers’ first-year hitting coach.
That was something Furcal himself nearly forgot last season, when the switch-hitting shortstop batted .270, including only .254 from the left side. He’s hitting .439 as a left-hander this year.
“I felt insecure at the plate last year because I was hitting on one leg,” he said. “My ankle didn’t help me, especially on the left side. This year, I feel surer of myself.”
The resurgence is coming at an opportune time for the electric lead-off hitter -- in the last year of his three-year, $39-million contract.
Furcal says he wants to remain with the Dodgers, though he doesn’t want to concern himself with talk of a new deal until the end of the season. Until then, he’s leaving the matter in the hands of his agent, Paul Kinzer, who visited Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti during spring training and has had a few follow-up conversations.
Kinzer said the 30-year-old Furcal was looking for a long-term deal that would allow him to “finish his career there.”
“There’s no deadline,” Kinzer said. “We’ll give them every opportunity to sign him.”
Said Colletti: “We want him to be a Dodger, so at some point in time, we’ll sit down and sort it out.”
Colletti says he is seeing the same player he saw in 2006, who, in that season, “if he wasn’t our best player, was certainly close to it.”
That includes his defense, where Furcal says he once again feels as if he has regained his range and arm.
“Last year, there were times I got to balls, but when I tried to stop my body and plant my foot to throw, I couldn’t,” he said.
But Jones said that health issues aside, Furcal is a better shortstop than he was when they played together in Atlanta from 2000 to ’05.
“His range was always good,” Jones said, “but his hands are so much better now. And I’ve always had a good view” from center field.
Furcal’s 11 extra-base hits this season are already more than he has had in any March-April, in which he was a career .250 hitter entering 2008. Of his 11 extra-base hits, two are home runs.
“You know where that comes from?” Easler said. “Thinking opposite-middle field. The more he thinks opposite-middle, the more patient he is because he waits longer and sees the ball longer. . . . “
Furcal is seeing more pitches as a result, 4.17 per plate appearance, which is up from 3.68 last season, according to Stats LLC.
“He has a better idea of what he wants to do compared to back then,” Jones said, again recalling their days in Atlanta.
“He had power and he wanted to drive the ball more. Now, he just tries to hit it.”
Waiting that way wasn’t an option last season, when his sprained ankle prevented him from keeping his weight on his back foot when hitting left-handed.
Part of the reason that has happened, Furcal said, is because he played winter ball in his native Dominican Republic during the off-season. But he said the greatest factor might be experience.
“Patience isn’t something you pick up immediately, it’s something that takes time to develop,” he said. “You learn by watching the veterans. I’m the type who loves to watch great hitters at the plate.”
When he was playing with Atlanta, Furcal said, he used to observe Chipper Jones, another switch-hitter. In Los Angeles, he added, he devotes the same amount of attention to Jeff Kent.
“They’re players who have years in baseball,” he said. “I try to pick up on their methods.”