Dodgers eagerly await Manny's return

Dodgers eagerly await Manny's return

LOS ANGELES -- By winning with Manny Ramirez last year, the glass-half-empty crowd insisted the Dodgers couldn't win without him.

Then, for 50 games this year, he gave the Dodgers no choice.

But while Ramirez was serving his suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy, the Dodgers didn't melt down. And when Ramirez returns to the starting lineup tonight in San Diego (10 p.m. ET on MLB.TV), he'll rejoin a club that not only believes it's more than a one-man show, but has proved it.

"He did it last year, he did," said catcher Russell Martin. "He got us there. If he's not there, no chance. But this year, I always felt having Manny was a bonus. It was like, 'We're already good -- and Manny, too!' But we were going to be good without him anyway, that's what I believed. We have a lot of good players here, but Manny is the one everybody knows. Ten years from now, people will look at who we had and say, 'No wonder they were good.'"

The Dodgers went 21-8 while averaging 5.55 runs with Ramirez; 29-21 and 4.40 runs without him. One interested observer can't blame the Dodgers for thinking they're about to get better again.

"Let's face it, it's like acquiring a player in a trade that you haven't had for the past 50 days," said Jim Tracy, a former Dodgers manager now directing the resurgence of the Colorado Rockies. "And then, oh, by the way, he shows up and he's pretty good offensively. I'm sure that's the way they're viewing it.

"They get a very special offensive player back, and when you haven't had him for 50 games and you're leading into July, it's like acquiring a player that you don't have to give up any of your good players in your system to get. It's a special thing."

The timing is fortunate for the Dodgers, who are showing cracks in their offensive foundation. Only because of the best pitching in baseball have the Dodgers kept control of the division. Their lead -- 6 1/2 games when Ramirez was suspended on May 7 and as high as 9 1/2 games on June 3 -- is still 6 1/2 games after eking out a 1-0 win over the torrid Rockies on Wednesday.

The offense, though, has stalled, scoring just eight runs in the past five games. The trend for most of the time that Ramirez was gone, however, was better than manager Joe Torre had a right to expect after losing a player with a .348 average, .492 on-base percentage and .641 slugging percentage.

NL West standings
May 6
TeamW-L  GB
Dodgers21-8  --
Giants13-13  6.5
D-backs12 16  8.5
Padres12 16  8.5
Rockies11 15  8.5
July 1
TeamW-L  GB
Dodgers50-29  --
Giants42-35  7.0
Rockies41-37  8.5
Padres34-4315.0
D-backs31-4618.5

"We've been lucky to win a lot of close games," said Torre. "We've made the most out of the runs we've scored."

The Dodgers had six walk-off victories during Manny's absence.

Los Angeles had the best record in baseball when Ramirez left and it still does, with the third-best record in the NL since May 7. Torre said that unlike last year, when he managed the offense around Ramirez by anchoring base runners to spread defenses, he turned everybody loose in Spring Training and the freedom provided a confident, aggressive approach for his young players.

"A lot of people stepped up," said Matt Kemp.

Like whom?

"Like everybody," he said. "We had to prove to everybody we had a good team, and we're going to be even better with big Manny back."

The offense made up for Ramirez's absence with a top-to-bottom balance that started with the new leadoff man returning to his old spot in left field. Juan Pierre, exiled to the unwanted role of fourth outfielder, came out of mothballs with a vengeance to hit .369 in May before tailing off by more than 100 points in June.

"It just goes to show how deep this team was, to take out one of the best hitters who ever played and what he brings and, in spite of losing him, we've shown [what we can do] with just everybody doing what they always do," said Pierre, who knows that Friday also means his return to the bench.

"It's not like we're all having career years with numbers off the charts. We're doing it collectively, as a team. Personally, I felt that if everybody did what he should, we'd still be pretty good. If we score some runs, with our pitching, I don't think it's a shock to anyone in here as far as how well we're doing. I mean, the guys realize it. We know what Manny brings. It's no secret. He's a great player, the home runs and everything, the way he hits with runners in scoring position. With that said, collectively we preach getting good at-bats up and down the lineup and wear down the opponent and good things will happen."


"We had to prove to everybody we had a good team, and we're going to be even better with big Manny back."
-- Matt Kemp

Orlando Hudson was already doing more than expected as a free-agent steal when Ramirez left, but steady and clutch Casey Blake and Kemp made up for the season-long offensive slumps of Martin and Rafael Furcal. Andre Ethier seemed impacted the most by Ramirez's absence (his average fell 60 points), but he also remained the club leader in RBIs.

An experienced bench (primarily Mark Loretta, Brad Ausmus and Juan Castro) and a confident manager who pushes the right buttons on and off the field add to the winning formula.

Of course, as with every good Dodgers team in recent memory, the biggest reason for its success -- with and without Ramirez -- is a pitching staff that ranks at or near the league lead in every pertinent category -- except the credit it receives.

"I may be biased, but you can't win without pitching, and the key to our success is that the whole staff pitched well, and that took a lot of pressure off the offense," said starter Randy Wolf. "I know last year, to the outside, it looked like Manny took pressure off the offense. But good pitching takes the pressure off offense."

Chad Billingsley assumed the role of ace as Hiroki Kuroda was slow to return from injury. Wolf's 11 no-decisions hide his consistency. Clayton Kershaw continues to flirt with greatness. And spot starters like Eric Stults, Eric Milton and Jeff Weaver have kept the Dodgers competitive in fifth-starter games.

The bullpen has been even better, and not just All-Star-candidate closer Jonathan Broxton. The unexpected emergence of Ramon Troncoso, Ronald Belisario and Brent Leach has compensated for injuries to Hong-Chih Kuo and Will Ohman and the struggles of Cory Wade. Weaver has resurrected his career as a swingman and Guillermo Mota has been lights out for six weeks.

While national media has focused almost solely on Ramirez as the clock ticked down for his return (and he did play in five games of a Minor League assignment), Torre has cautioned that Ramirez will need time to adjust. Torre isn't expecting the kind of dramatic impact Ramirez had when he arrived last summer, but he's not complaining about the timing, either.

"Hopefully, Manny will give us a more consistent offense," Torre said. "I think the presence he brings to the lineup is a security blanket for the rest of the guys. Manny knows better than anybody else to stay within himself and how to be an impact guy. We get frustrated and lose patience sometimes. He affects people around him. We've missed his presence in the lineup."

And in the clubhouse.

And at the box office.

Mannywood, the section of box seats near the left-field foul pole that was suspended along with Ramirez, returns to Dodger Stadium when the team does after the All-Star break. His bobblehead giveaway is July 22. From all indications, he'll be welcomed back like a conquering hero by the forgiving hometown fans.

Ramirez has shied away from the media during his suspension, but those who have spoken with him say he's ready for Friday.

"He just called and said he can't wait," said Mota, who returned from a similar suspension in 2007. "He knows what to expect."

Long-time coach Manny Mota, who oversaw Ramirez's Dodger Stadium workouts and chaperoned his Minor League assignment, said Ramirez has been "joking around like always" and has been swinging the bat "better than in Spring Training."

Coach Mariano Duncan said Ramirez is not concerned with fan reaction on the road.

"He says fans boo him on the road anyway," said Duncan. "He hears it all the time and he says that makes him concentrate more. No doubt in my mind he's ready. He won't worry about what people say to him."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.