Carroll fills Furcal's shoes admirably

LOS ANGELES -- No one in the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse, least of all Jamey Carroll, would tell you this is a better team without Rafael Furcal playing shortstop and batting leadoff. No Dodger, least of all Carroll, would suggest Furcal hasn't been missed, even though this once-dormant season has been turned around during his time on the disabled list.

So with Furcal on the verge of returning from a left hamstring strain after a couple of false starts, it was clear to Carroll, after Sunday's 6-2 home loss to the Detroit Tigers, that he was about to go back to his unglamorous life as a utility infielder.

Carroll has played almost every inning at shortstop since Furcal hurt himself running out a double-play grounder April 27. And while Carroll doesn't have Furcal's range, flash or athletic ability at the position, he is as solid as they come at the balls he gets to.

Throw in his .295 average with 10 RBIs, 14 runs scored and a .385 on-base percentage while Furcal was out and you get a pretty good idea of how the Dodgers went 17-8 without him. Carroll went 2-for-4 in the loss to the Tigers, helping set up Xavier Paul's two-run single in the fifth with a single that sent Blake DeWitt to third after Detroit's Magglio Ordonez bobbled the ball.

"The main thing is, it has been fun to be a part of the winning," Carroll said. "Hopefully, we can continue that. I'm excited to get Furcal back at the top of the lineup."

The Dodgers didn't sign Carroll, 36, to an incentive-laden two-year, $3.85 million contract last winter to be their every-day anything, much less their shortstop. Other than a brief spell with Colorado in 2006, when he started 102 games at second base, he has been a role player throughout his eight-year career in the majors. He can play second, third, short and even the corner outfield spots in an emergency.

Maybe it was thanks to that ability to play so many positions -- too many for his own good, perhaps? -- that Carroll got stuck with the label of a utility player early in his career and has never been able to shake it.

Not that he spends much time worrying about that.

"There isn't one person on any team that doesn't want to be out there when it counts," Carroll said. "The bottom line is I understand my role. That is who I am on this team, and I don't mind it at all. That has been my role for a long time. I'm always prepared for something like [Furcal's injury], and that is why I have been successful this time. But I understand who I am and what I am here to do."

Because of Furcal's injury, Carroll hasn't seen the right side of the infield since the first game of that fateful doubleheader at New York. True to form, he said he plans to be doing extra work at second base before Tuesday night's game at Chicago to reacquaint himself with a position he has played 435 times in his career.

That's the thing with Carroll, who is kind of a poor man's David Eckstein: He's a grinder, the quintessential dirty-uniform guy, someone whose failures on the field are never a result of a lack of preparation.

"Raffy's got some big shoes to fill," said Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake, who also was Carroll's teammate for most of 2008 in Cleveland. "For Jamey to step in there, what you don't realize is that obviously, there is the mental load he takes on playing shortstop for however many days, but there is also the physical load. For a bench guy, a backup, he is thrown in there for a few weeks, and it takes a toll on your body when your body isn't used to that. He is just a solid player.

"He is a baseball player in the true sense of the word, and that's why he is here."

In a major league clubhouse, there can be no higher compliment than that. And with the Dodgers having scarcely missed a beat during Furcal's absence, there is no player more deserving of that title than Carroll.

Pitching plans

Although Dodgers manager Joe Torre hasn't announced who his fifth starter will be the next time he needs one Friday or Saturday -- he has hinted that it could be rookie Carlos Monasterios -- don't be surprised if it ends up being knuckleballer Charlie Haeger.

Haeger, whom the Dodgers say is suffering from plantar fasciitis, will make the third start on his injury rehabilitation assignment for high Class A Inland Empire on Monday at High Desert.

Haeger, who was 0-4 with a 10.31 ERA in five previous starts for the Dodgers this season, said last week that he has corrected his mechanics under the tutelage of 66ers pitching coach and longtime big league knuckleballer Charlie Hough.

Haeger becomes eligible to be activated from the 15-day disabled list Monday.

Looking ahead

The Dodgers will send red-hot left-hander Clayton Kershaw (4-2, 3.23) to the mound against the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night in the opener of a three-game series at Wrigley Field, the opener of a six-game trip for the Dodgers and the opener of a 16-game stretch without an off day. Kershaw has never faced the Cubs in his three major league seasons. He will be opposed by veteran right-hander Ryan Dempster (2-4, 3.73), who is 6-3 with a 2.52 ERA in 21 career appearances (11 starts) against the Dodgers.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.