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Notes: Furcal close to returning

Notes: Furcal close to returning

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Disabled Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal has made significant progress in the recovery from a sprained ankle over the past two days and could be activated soon.

Furcal is taking grounders hit to both sides, throwing unrestricted, batting from both sides and running on the warning track. The last test will be the toughest -- making the sharp cuts required while running the bases.

"I'm getting closer," said Furcal, who has gone to a three-quarter high-top spikes for added support, physically and psychologically. "I'm starting to feel a lot better. I could beat you in a race."

Manager Grady Little said that from here on, Furcal's availability is on a day-to-day basis. When he's activated, however, somebody must come off the 25-man roster.

The most likely candidate is Wilson Valdez, who started at shortstop Sunday for the second consecutive day. But Valdez is out of options, which means the Dodgers would risk another team claiming him. Another possibility would be optioning another player, like outfielders Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier.

What about Betemit? Wilson Betemit and his .067 batting average were benched Sunday, with Ramon Martinez starting at third base. Betemit is also out of options, so he would be vulnerable to the same risk as Valdez.

Betemit said he feels he's seeing pitches well, but batting in the eighth spot with the pitcher providing no protection, he sees few good pitches to hit and has been missing them.

"He's playing outstanding defense, but he needs to be better with the bat," said Little.

Break for Saito: Before Sunday's game, Little said he would try to stay away from using 37-year-old closer Takashi Saito, who had saved the previous three games.

"Using him four or five days this early in the season might be asking a bit much," said Little.

Little said Jonathan Broxton would probably get the call in save situations, but he confirmed that Chad Billingsley has become a late-inning candidate because of his seamless transition to relief.

"It might be a while before we reach out to Billingsley [for a save], but I wouldn't be scared to," said Little. "Broxton, in my mind, is next in line for that [closing]. Chad is a multiple-innings guy, but we're not scared to move him farther back. We don't change our thoughts, players change our thoughts for us."

Kent's observations: In Saturday's game, Valdez and second baseman Jeff Kent ranged well into the outfield to catch pop flies that probably belonged to Dodgers outfielders who don't seem to be taking charge on balls in front of them.

Kent believes it stems from the injury suffered by Furcal, who turned his ankle badly in a collision with Jason Repko as they converged on a soft fly in shallow center field.

"I think there's a small sense of hesitancy with short fly balls ever since Rafael Furcal went down," Kent said on Saturday's postgame radio show. "That was a big injury and some of the outfielders maybe are worried about crashing into the infielders. We need to get over that and get our confidence back. The outfielders need to be confident that they can take the ball away from the infielders and the infielders need to be confident that the outfielders are not going to crash into us."

Bench coach Dave Jauss also suggested that the two parks in which the Dodgers played this week -- Miller Park and AT&T Park, present unique characteristics (a roof and wind) that can't be duplicated in Spring Training.

Carpool rewards: The Dodgers are offering fans that carpool (at least four fans per automobile) to Opening Day a free reserved level ticket for each passenger to a future game if they arrive at Dodger Stadium between 9:30 and 10:15 a.m. and park in Lot 15. The offer is limited to the first 600 automobiles.

Lot 15, located above the Think Blue sign, is a special access parking lot that is only utilized during sold-out games. Fans will need to enter via the Academy Gate across from the Police Academy.

In addition to the free ticket for a future game, fans that carpool and park in Lot 15 will have early access to Opening Day batting practice via the Left Field Pavilion. Fans must have tickets to Opening Day in order to participate in the special offer. Additionally, the lots on Stadium Way near the LAFD Training Facility will cost $5.

Touch of green: During Monday's Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, 12 of the green jerseys worn by the Dodgers on St. Patrick's Day will be auctioned off to benefit the Dodgers Dream Foundation. The silent auction, which will take place during the game on the Club Level, will include the jerseys of Kent, Saito, Nomar Garciaparra, Russell Martin, Juan Pierre and several others.

Coming up: Jason Schmidt (1-0, 1.80 ERA) draws the Opening Day assignment Monday against Jeff Francis (0-0, 3.00) and the Colorado Rockies. Brett Tomko, who has pitched only two innings since March 27, starts Tuesday. Tomko tuned up with a full bullpen session before Saturday's game.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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