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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Dirks' knee hasn't been 100 percent since spring training, but it's getting better

DETROIT — It wasn’t exactly an edict.

More of a recommendation that Andy Dirks skip winter ball this time around.

After watching Andy Dirks struggle with lower-body injuries in 2012, it was obvious to some members of the Tigers brain trust that maybe a little bit of time off his feet in the offseason might be beneficial, just to limit the possibility of his body hitting a wall.

So he did.

And then his body hit a wall — more literally than figuratively, this time.

After a restful offseason, a collision with the outfield wall in Lakeland, Fla., this spring has put Dirks back behind the 8-ball again.

He’s been struggling with inflammation in his right knee for a better part of the first month, something that’s surely contributed to his lackluster start.

“Well, I hit it pretty good, so I knew. I mean, it was swollen up. I figured its just swelling, and it’ll go away. But it just lingered and lingered and lingered,” Dirks said Sunday, the third straight day he was out of the starting lineup for the Tigers.

“It definitely took me a little longer to get going (without winter ball), and I was feeling pretty good toward the middle of spring training. You know, swing was coming along good, everything’s progressing. I think hitting the wall set me back a little bit, but that’s just part of the nature of the best. That’s baseball. Things happen.”

After helping the Escogido Leones clinch the Dominican Winter League title in January 2012, Dirks came into spring training red hot — and stayed that way.

By May 1 last year, Dirks was hitting .314.

By the end of that month, it was up to .328.

And then he missed the next 55 games with a combination of hamstring issues and soreness in his Achilles tendon.

Late in the season, manager Jim Leyland thought it might be a good idea if Dirks didn’t subject himself to year-round baseball, so that maybe he wouldn’t wear out.

“The first full Major League season is pretty long,” Leyland said at the time. “Now, I don’t want to get in trouble with the organization because I don’t know what the plan is, but I’m a big believer that you have to get a way from it.”

As well-intentioned as the plan was, the plan didn’t necessarily work — through no fault of anyone’s.

No one could have anticipated him hitting the left-field wall at Joker Marchant Stadium, chasing after a Jack Cust fly ball. The knee swelled up right away, and limited his time in the field the rest of spring training.

“I’m not sure he’s ever been at 100 percent. I don’t think he’s 100 percent, no, I do not. I think there were days he ran hard to first base and he looked pretty normal, but then when you’d watch him go out to the outfield after the inning sometimes he wasn’t moving quite as good,” Leyland said. “So I doubt that it’s ever been 100 percent just yet, to be honest with you. I don’t know that for a fact. But it does appear to be recurring. I don’t know if warm weather, cool weather’s got anything to do with that. I don’t really have an idea on that.”

It hasn’t helped that the Tigers haven’t been warm since the spring, either.

“Yeah, the cold definitely makes it more stiff, or something. It hurt more during the cold games than it did during the warmer. ... There’s days it felt better, and days it felt worse, for sure,” he said. “It’s that inflammation in there. It just lingers, stays in there. Keep playing on it, keep playing on it, and it doesn’t really have a chance to get out of it.”

It’s definitely slowed him down, but probably isn’t the sole reason that Dirks has gotten off to such a slow start. He’s hitting just .167 with one extra-base hit in 17 games played, having struck out 12 times.

“I mean, I’m not going to make excuses why I haven’t been hitting. I don’t know if it’s a factor or not,” Dirks said.

“Could be. Could be a lot of factors. Definitely wasn’t helping the issue, you know?”

At least the inflammation is starting to finally clear up.

Dirks isn’t 100 percent, but he’s getting closer.

“I would not say that he’s probably 100 percent. But he was feeling better yesterday. How fast you get 100 percent, I don’t really know. Apparently it’s probably going to be a little cool and damp so I don’t really know. I guess that affects that kind of stuff, but yeah, I could play him,” Leyland said. “I could have played him (Saturday) as far as putting him in if I had to. I would not have been able to take (Matt) Tuiasosopo out yesterday if I hadn’t felt I could put him out there if something happened.”

Dirks is encouraged, at least.

“The last couple days, it’s felt better than it’s felt in the last month,” he said. “Definitely an improvement.”


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