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Weaver returns with something to prove

Weaver returns with something to prove

PHOENIX -- The Dodgers re-signed Jeff Weaver earlier this month, but only to another Minor League contract. He still needs to make the ballclub with nothing guaranteed, the same situation he faced a year ago.

The differences from last spring to this, though, are considerable. Last year, having disappeared into the Minor Leagues for all of 2008, he was trying to salvage a career that once included the titles of "staff ace" and "World Series hero." He just wanted the title of "Major Leaguer" again and had to prove he was back in form to a manager that gave up on him in New York.

Weaver opened the 2009 season in the Minor Leagues again, but eventually worked his way back to the big leagues with the Dodgers and assumed the job as veteran swingman that Chan Ho Park filled the previous season. Weaver exceeded expectations, going 6-4 with a 3.65 ERA, starting seven games and pitching 79 innings.

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This week, manager Joe Torre confirmed that the swingman job is Weaver's to lose.

"We know what he did last year. He was very valuable," Torre said of the 33-year-old Weaver. "We left him off the Championship Series roster because of [Phillies] lefties, but he took the ball as a starter and he really helped our young bullpen do the job they did. He's highly thought of for me. He's not just an add-on as far as I'm concerned."

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Weaver said he could have signed a Major League contract elsewhere. But with the Wednesday birth of his first child, Drake, he chose the Dodgers to stay near his Manhattan Beach home, knowing he had already proved himself to management. Just in case, this year he has an escape clause if he doesn't make the big league club out of camp, "so I don't have to do the Triple-A thing again."

"Obviously, they know what I can do or they wouldn't have brought me back," Weaver said. "They know I have the ability to give them five innings if somebody goes down, and not many young guys are capable of that. I would hope their questions are answered about me. I did bounce back with a solid year and I hope they expect the same this year. Last year, they hadn't seen me pitch relief. There were question marks that don't exist now."

It was a tough road back for Weaver, a former Detroit ace who rediscovered his delivery slot after developing bad habits over a 10-year career. Then he had to convert to relief work, which he hadn't tried in the Major Leagues since 2003.

Even last year, as well as he pitched and after picking up a victory against the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, he was left off the Dodgers roster for the NL Championship Series because management wanted to match up rookie Scott Elbert against Philadelphia's left-handed lineup.

The game has a way of keeping players humble, or as Weaver said, he's not counting his chickens yet.

"I hope I continue to show that, even though I'm not an outspoken person, I have the confidence to rise from having fallen and make things happen," he said. "That's satisfying to me, to have proved to myself after what I've been through. And, no question, to prove to him [Torre] as far as him not knowing what I can do. The last time he saw me pitch, I gave up a game-winning home run in the World Series."

That was 2003 and it led to his first tour of duty with the Dodgers as the key player received in a salary swap for Kevin Brown. Weaver won 27 games for the Dodgers in 2004-05, but he overplayed his hand in free agency and began the life of a journeyman, bouncing from the Angels to the Cardinals (winning the World Series in 2006) to the Mariners and, after stops in Buffalo and Nashville, back to the Dodgers.

There are other pitchers in the Dodgers' clubhouse this spring trying to make it back as Weaver did. From Eric Gagne and Russ Ortiz to Ramon Ortiz and Luis Ayala, even after cashing in on fortune and fame, there is something about the game that brings them back for another shot.

"We understand with eye contact and a handshake that we've been through it," Weaver said of this unusual club. "There's an instant bond and there's instant support of each other if there are any questions. I've seen this game through just about every angle, just like life, pretty much."

Weaver became a father for the first time Wednesday, he and wife Jillian welcoming son Drake. He returned to practice Saturday, saying he hopes he can continue pitching long enough so Drake "can understand what dad does instead of seeing it on a DVD."

Across the clubhouse, he can see somebody that, a dozen years ago, could have been him.

"I was 21 and pretty much the ace of the Detroit staff," Weaver said when asked to size up Clayton Kershaw. "The difference is, he was out of high school, I went to college and was more prepared. It's a little more structured in college and there isn't so much patting on the back as there is in high school. But with his mentality, it's refreshing to watch him. He works his tail off. He's somebody to watch.

"Off the field, he's got everything in check. He's on the straight and narrow and has a good head on his shoulders. He's already pitched deep into the playoffs on a good team. Now he's got a good team relying on him to pitch into the seventh or eighth inning every time. It is a challenge."

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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