Notes: Stiff back keeps Furcal out

Notes: Stiff back keeps Furcal out

DENVER -- Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal missed a second consecutive start Wednesday night with lower back stiffness.

"He's somewhat better, but he doesn't have the full range," said trainer Stan Conte. "He's better, but not quite ready enough. It doesn't seem real serious, but there's definitely tightness and he has trouble swinging [the bat]. We don't know what the cause is. It's not radiating, so it doesn't look like a nerve or disk. But right now, he doesn't have enough range to play."

Furcal has been playing with a sprained left ankle suffered in Spring Training that never fully healed and robbed him of support while batting left-handed as well as first-step quickness on the bases.

Conte said the back injury surfaced after Sunday's game, worsened on the Monday flight to Denver and tightened up during Tuesday's day game, resulting in his removal in the seventh inning. He did not play in the nightcap.

Conte said the latest problem could be the result of Furcal compensating for the ankle.

Manager Grady Little said Furcal will determine when he returns.

"He knows when his body is ready to play," Little said. "This guy, there's no question when he says he can't go, he can't go. He's played through so much this year, it's unbelievable. The guy's a good player, one of the best in the league when he's totally healthy. It's frustrating to everyone, him especially."

Furcal was arguably the Dodgers' best position player in 2006, when he hit .300 with 15 homers, 56 extra-base hits, 63 RBIs, 113 runs scored and 37 stolen bases. This year his average is down 30 points, he has nine fewer homers, 23 fewer extra-base hits, 16 fewer RBIs, 26 fewer runs scored and 12 fewer steals.

With Furcal sidelined, Little started Tony Abreu at shortstop. Juan Pierre returned to Furcal's leadoff spot in the order with Matt Kemp batting second.

Garciaparra plays again: Nomar Garciaparra, still battling a strained calf muscle, started at third base for the second consecutive game. Garciaparra hasn't started three consecutive games at third base since Aug. 5-8.

In both of Garciaparra's seasons with the Dodgers, he's finished the season injured. Last year, it was a combination of quad, knee and rib cage muscle injuries that sidelined him for one-quarter of the team's games and left him less than 100 percent for another quarter.

Despite all of that, and the fact the Dodgers have started seven players at the position, as the current roster stands, Little said Garciaparra tops the depth chart for next year.

"As we speak, probably the truth is, Nomar would have to be the incumbent," said Little. "He's had a tough season this year. Hopefully, he'll get it turned around."

Little moved Garciaparra to third base on June 26 to open up first base for James Loney.

Last year, Garciaparra batted .303 with 20 homers, 93 RBIs and 82 runs scored. This year he's hitting .280 with seven homers, 58 RBIs and only 39 runs scored.

Billingsley matures: The radar gun on Chad Billingsley rarely surpassed 91 mph in his start Tuesday at Coors Field, easily four or five ticks slower than his normal. Is it an injury?

"It's pitching," said Billingsley, charged with the 3-1 loss. "It's just something I've learned. When I want to reach back for it, I can still throw 96, 97, but my command with it isn't as good. I can throw 92 and hit the outer part of the plate. I used to be a big velocity guy. Now I see that's kind of overrated. Maybe I didn't have my best stuff, but I was really pitching. A 92 with action is more difficult to hit than 95 straight."

Next year's Saenz: Saenz's pinch-hit homer was the Dodgers' lone run in Tuesday's day game. It was also the 12th of Saenz's career and his eighth as a Dodger, which is tied for second with Lee Lacy and Johnny Frederick in franchise history and five behind Dave Hansen. On the year, Saenz is tied for fourth in the Majors with 13 pinch-hits and tied for sixth in pinch-hit home runs with two.

Nonetheless, Saenz is batting .190, compared to a career average of .318. Saenz, 37 next month, has set up his post-playing career with a horse ranch and construction business in Panama. He is eligible for free agency and said he wants to continue playing, as long as it's in the Major Leagues.

"I've paid my dues in the Minor Leagues, nine seasons," he said.

Bustabad on board: Juan Bustabad, who managed the Gulf Coast Dodgers to a 40-15 record and berth in the league finals, joined the Major League team for the last two weeks of the season. The Cuban-born Bustabad has managed five seasons in the Dodgers organization and 10 overall, compiling records of 227-153 and 444-324, respectively.

Coming up: In Thursday's series finale, Derek Lowe (12-12, 3.71) opposes Ubaldo Jimenez (3-3, 4.04) at 12:05 p.m. PT.

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