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With Strawberry out, Davis hopes to steer clear of serious injury


LOS ANGELES -- Eric Davis visits the Los Angeles Dodgers' training room less frequently these days. It's not that he's feeling better, it's that he doesn't want anyone to discover he's feeling worse.

"I know if I'm out there playing, it's going to make everything a little better," Davis said. "We've already lost one of us."

He and longtime friend Darryl Strawberry were supposed to carry the Dodgers offensive load this season, the pillars of

strength in what the team's marketing department billed as the "Outfield of Dreams."

But the weight of that load has proved too heavy. Strawberry has landed on the disabled list with a herniated disk in his lower back that might require surgery, and Davis has been bothered since spring training by a herniated disk in his neck, an injury that,

under different circumstances, would have him sidelined as well.

"I don't know if it would be long enough for the disabled list, but I'd take more days off than I have [if Strawberry was healthy]," Davis admitted.

But with Strawberry down, Davis continues to gut it out, knowing he is the team's best (perhaps only) remaining power threat. As the Pittsburgh Pirates began a three-game series at Dodger Stadium Friday, it was Davis who is the team's active leader with four home runs and 16 RBI.

Davis left Cincinnati with a reputation for not wanting to play unless 100 percent healthy, a reputation he has shattered since joining the Dodgers. He has missed five of the first 36 games, three because of a tight hamstring, despite having a pain in the neck that won't go away without an extended rest or possibly surgery.

"Playing on other teams, you hear all the negative things about a guy -- he's not a gamer, he won't play hurt," center fielder Brett Butler said of Davis when the injury was first diagnosed last month. "He hasn't shown that at all. He works hard and wants to play. I don't know where that stuff came from except maybe from guys who were jealous."

Back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins, who is treating Strawberry and Davis, said Davis' availability this season would be "mainly a matter of how much pain he can stand. It can be real, real intense at times."

But so is Davis, who is so determined to lead the Dodgers out of the NL West cellar that he will risk hurting his own bargaining power after the season, when he could be a free agent.

"I just want to play and I feel I can play with it right now," Davis said. "I'm thinking more for the morale of the team, the statistics aren't important to me right now. Keeping the team motivated is my job now."

Davis has not hit a home run since April 24, when he was batting .388. He entered Friday hitting .259, as the neck pain and a recent 4-for-44 slump have taken their toll. He has only driven in three runs in his last 16 games. But he has quietly accepted the pressure of hitting cleanup and agreed to move to right field until Strawberry returns.

Other potential free agents, in today's salary-first era, would not accept such risks to their market value.

"Those guys haven't experienced winning," said Davis, who helped Cincinnati win the 1990 World Series. "I've experienced winning and I've made a lot of money. They're both good but I don't have to be one of the five highest-paid players in baseball or anything like that. That's not what's important to me. I could be one of those guys saying, 'This is my free agent year and I'm not going to play until I'm 100 percent healthy.' But that's not me, that's not my mystique. I hope they see that."

Davis said he also hopes Strawberry doesn't rush his return in his haste to give Davis some time off.

"I don't want him to feel that way, because his situation is something he can't help," Davis said. "I don't want him to feel guilty about anything. Free agency doesn't mean a lot to me right now. Having this team playing respectable baseball does.

"I'm going to do what I have to do. It's not a situation where I'll put up the big numbers I've been looking forward to, and not having him in there is a big reason, but I'll still put up numbers."

The Dodgers have only started Davis and Strawberry together 21 times and are 8-13 in those games. But since Davis has been hurting since March, the team still hasn't seen the production envisioned from a healthy Davis-Strawberry combination.

"We still have time," Davis said. "And even though his situation is a little uncertain right now, no one's put him out for the year yet. There's still time."

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