With Pierre, Dodgers haven't missed beat

Pierre keeps Dodgers on top

DENVER -- In the 18 games since losing Manny Ramirez to a 50-game suspension, the Dodgers haven't lost a step. Though they've fallen off the torrid .724 winning percentage they paced themselves with from Opening Day through May 6, the team has upped its run production and lengthened its lead in the National League West to 8 1/2 games entering play Wednesday.

Credit the depth of the bench for rising to the occasion, particularly the play of Juan Pierre, who is hitting .410 with a .489 on-base percentage since taking over in left field on May 7.

"He's shown us so much more production and so much more pop," manager Joe Torre said of the veteran outfielder, who first broke in with the Rockies in 2000. "He was certainly ready for this when it presented itself."

As a player coming off five consecutive seasons of playing 162 games a season with the Marlins, Cubs and Dodgers, Pierre was challenged by his second season with L.A. in 2008, playing 119 games, losing his starting spot in center to Matt Kemp and losing playing time due to an injury and the midseason arrival of Ramirez.

"His work ethic, playing or not playing, has never changed," Torre said. "Last year was a tough year for him. When he finally started playing regularly, he got hurt and was very frustrated. Then he came back and Manny was there. He never really got a chance to get going again.

"The thing you really respect about him more than anything is his work ethic. He's a good team person. Last year, I asked him to help with the younger players, and knowing that Matt Kemp was playing his position didn't keep him from going over and trying to help this young man. I think everybody's happy for him right now."

Coming home to Colorado has only further ignited the prototypical spark-plug player, and Pierre was 5-for-11 through the first two games in Coors Field with five RBIs and four runs. He has played most of his career at the top of the lineup and leads all active players with 438 steals, 99 more than his next closest competition since 2001, Carl Crawford.

Even before Ramirez's suspension, the Dodgers had been working to make better use of their team speed this season, giving players the green light with Ramirez at the plate after Torre had been reluctant to risk an out with his best hitter at the plate last season. The shift in approach has made for a seamless transition from Ramirez's power bat to Pierre's dramatically different offensive output.

"Last year, we used to gear everything around Manny -- don't try to steal if he's up," Torre said. "We didn't have that mind-set this year. Especially when we have [Rafael] Furcal and [Orlando] Hudson hitting in front of Manny. We didn't have any rules to curtail what they needed to do. In that regard, it was good for us not to have to all of a sudden say, 'This is what we need to do now.' We really hadn't changed, other than the fact that Manny was hitting third and we put Juan at the top of the order now. When Raffy's back in there, we have three speed guys in a row."

Furcal took one more day Wednesday to recover from tightness in his upper left leg and is expected to start Thursday in Chicago. Juan Castro went 5-for-9 in the first two games of the series, making it easy to keep Furcal out of the lineup another day. Castro is hitting .400 in 35 at-bats over 35 games this season and is part of a veteran bench that has helped the Dodgers stay on pace.

"It's unique to have a guy be able to come off the bench once a week and appear like he's playing every day," Torre said. "It's very tough to do it with young kids. We tried that last spring. It's a great package when you have role players that can do that. Whenever you need to plug him in, you can tell him last minute and it doesn't really matter. He doesn't change his demeanor or his approach. He's a very well-thought-of professional for us."

Casey Blake also took Wednesday off, giving veteran Mark Loretta his fourth start of the season at third base.

"We have a depth to our lineup now and our bench that we didn't have a year ago," Torre said. "We've had situations where we've rested one, two or three guys. You have Loretta who's been a regular, you have Castro who's been a regular, and you have [catcher Brad] Ausmus who's been a regular, so it's really very easy for a manager to do that knowing that playing is not foreign to these guys, and pressure stuff isn't foreign to them either. It's a good situation for me, and certainly the guys you give the rest to -- 95 percent of the time they're getting to rest the whole game."

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.