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Guerra aims for healthy season after difficult '12

After breaking out in 2011, the reliever was sidelined with multiple injuries last year

Guerra aims for healthy season after difficult '12

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A year ago, Javy Guerra came to Spring Training as the Dodgers' closer. This spring, he's fighting to stay in the Major Leagues.

That's what can happen when you get hit in the face with a line drive, have knee surgery, strain an oblique muscle and have shoulder surgery, all while your father is undergoing and recovering from emergency heart surgery.

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Guerra said his father is now healthy, and so is the right-hander. He leaves the Dodgers after Sunday's one-inning appearance to pitch for Mexico's World Baseball Classic team as a late replacement. He knows there's risk in being away from the team with no guaranteed job, but at age 27, he can't resist the rare opportunity to pitch for the country in which his parents were born.

"I respect the situation -- me coming off injuries, the new ownership expectations and what's going on in the bullpen," he said. "But I think this will make me a better pitcher. The competition will be tough. And the game against the United States, with 40,000 people there, it will be amazing."

It took Guerra eight Minor League seasons and one Tommy John elbow reconstruction before he became an overnight sensation with a 2011 callup to the Dodgers from Double-A, inheriting the closer job from a struggling and injured Jonathan Broxton. He saved 21 games as a rookie with a 2.31 ERA.

He opened 2012 with five saves and a win in his first six appearances, but he started to wobble in late April and on April 25, took a vicious Brian McCann line drive off the right side of his face. He stayed on the mound to finish the inning and eventually blew the save. He lost his closer job to Kenley Jansen two weeks later, and in June he underwent knee surgery for an injury he had sustained while trying to spin out of the way of McCann's line drive.

Returning after the knee surgery, Guerra was called away in mid-July when his father suffered a heart attack and needed emergency surgery.

From July 28 to Sept. 2, Guerra was healthy. Although reduced to a supporting role with the acquisition of Brandon League, Guerra pitched 12 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing seven hits, only to suffer a strained oblique muscle. When he realized it wouldn't heal in time for the stretch run, he decided to have surgery for an arthritic acromioclavicular joint, where the collarbone meets the shoulder.

Guerra said the shoulder had been bothering him for years; he believed it was the result of breaking his collarbone playing football as a kid. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who had the same surgery nearly 30 years ago, counseled Guerra on what to expect.

"I now have range of motion I haven't had for three years," Guerra said. "I can let the ball go without thinking about [what] hurts and what doesn't."

He suspects that last year's injuries had the classic domino effect -- pitching with the bad knee leading to straining the oblique, which put more stress on the shoulder.

"To sum up last year, I'm mentally stronger for having gone through all the adversity," he said. "It's made me figure out what I do right and what I do wrong."

When healthy, he was still pretty good. in 2012 He allowed only one home run in 45 innings and had a 2.60 ERA. The 23 walks (up more than one walk per nine innings from 2011) were the big red flag.

The Dodgers' bullpen could be loaded. Closer League, closer-in-waiting Jansen and even setup man Ronald Belisario are ahead of him. Matt Guerrier is coming off an injury, while youngsters Shawn Tolleson and Josh Wall are competing as well. There are also non-roster veterans like Kevin Gregg, Peter Moylan and Mark Lowe.

And then there are three to-be-named surplus starters that could wind up relieving by default.

Guerra doesn't feel sorry for himself that the fates seemed to turn against him last year, as they seemed to turn for him in 2011. Now it's a numbers game, and he still has Minor League options, so opening the season in the Minor Leagues is a real possibility.

"I was closing; now I'm fighting for a spot," Guerra said. "It's growth. There are too many great pitchers in this bullpen. There isn't room for everyone. But it comes with maturity, understanding how life works. I'm not the first or the last this happens to."

Manager Don Mattingly said Guerra doesn't have a guaranteed spot, but he has things going for him.

"He's got good stuff," Mattingly said. "He's got a starter's mix -- cutter, curveball, good stuff against lefties and righties. He's durable for multiple innings. He does have some history -- the guy's had success. Twenty-something saves is pretty good."

As part of his rehab, Guerra lost a few pounds by changing his diet. He worked out over the winter near his Frisco, Texas home, adhering to the program prescribed by the team's trainers. He said all of those health problems from last year are gone.

"I'm really happy with the way I feel physically," he said. "I'm ready to go."

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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