The big bats for the Philadelphia Phillies might need to get on track if they are to go any further.
Possibly baseball’s biggest story in recent weeks continues Thursday, with Ramirez and the Dodgers seeking the first of four wins needed to return to the World Series while the Phillies hope Ryan Howard and Chase Utley get off to a good start in the NLCS.
No deal was bigger this season than Boston sending Ramirez to Los Angeles at the July 31 trade deadline, and the move has helped push the Dodgers within one series win of its first trip to the World Series since 1988.
“I think he fit us perfectly because of our youth,” said Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe, who starts Game 1. “It was great for our young hitters to see how a superstar goes about his daily business, how hard he prepares, how he doesn’t let one pitch or one at-bat affect him.”
A 19-8 record from Aug. 30 through the end of the regular season gave Los Angeles the NL West title and Ramirez was the spark, in the clubhouse and at the plate. He hit .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in 53 regular-season games with the Dodgers.
Ramirez hasn’t cooled off in the playoffs, where he’s always shined, going 5-for-10 with two homers, three RBIs and four walks in a first-round sweep of the Chicago Cubs. His 26 postseason home runs are the most all-time and his 67 RBIs rank second behind Bernie Williams (80).
“I just go out there and relax and try and do my best,” said Ramirez, who won the most recent of his two championships with Boston last year.
Many baseball fans are intrigued by the possibility of Ramirez - not to mention current Dodgers and ex-Yankees manager Joe Torre - facing the Red Sox in the World Series. However, that would mean Boston has to knock off Tampa Bay in the ALCS while Los Angeles overcomes the lack of home-field advantage in this series against a potent Philadelphia offense.
That lineup, however, failed to impress in the division series while the pitching staff carried the Phillies past Milwaukee in four games. Utley and Howard combined to go 4-for-26 (.154) as Philadelphia was held to 15 runs and hit .250.
“I’m trying to find holes, trying to put together good at-bats, trying to get on for the next guy,” said Utley, who hit 33 homers this season but has only two in his last 35 games overall. “It’s as simple as that. See the ball, hit the ball.”
Utley has hit .154 (4-for-26) with two RBIs and nine strikeouts in seven career playoff games, including a sweep to Colorado in last year’s NLDS. Howard is a lifetime .217 postseason hitter (5-for-23) with two RBIs and 12 strikeouts in seven games.
“He’s got to be very patient and not chase pitches out of the zone,” Manuel said of Howard, who led the majors with 48 homers and 146 RBIs. “He’s got to get balls to hit and stay in the middle of the field or hit the ball to left field. Then when he does that, that’s what brings him right back around.”
Some good news for both lefty-hitting stars is the Dodgers are starting right-handers in the first three games - Lowe, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda. Plus, Los Angeles’ top two relievers are righties Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito, who both could serve in the closer’s role depending on the game situation, according to Torre.
Lowe (1-0, 3.00 ERA) has not lost in the postseason since he was with Ramirez in Boston, dropping both of his starts against New York in the 2003 ALCS. Since then, he’s 4-0 with a 2.93 ERA in six playoff appearances after pitching six sharp innings to beat the Cubs in last Wednesday’s 7-2 win in Game 1.
Lowe is 4-0 with a 2.58 ERA in his last six outings versus the Phillies and won his only start against them this year, allowing three runs in 6 1-3 innings of an 8-6 victory on Aug. 11.
Ramirez has not had the same kind of success against Philadelphia. He went 7-for-33 (.212) with a homer and five RBIs in 10 matchups this year and was particularly bad in six games at Citizens Bank Park, hitting .136 (3-for-22) with no RBIs.
His 2-for-14 effort there in late August helped the Phillies sweep a four-game set as they outscored the Dodgers 27-5, though earlier in the month Philadelphia suffered a four-game sweep in Los Angeles.
The only two times Cole Hamels (1-0, 0.00) has faced the Dodgers came in August, pitching seven innings of two-run ball in both outings, and he’ll look to continue that success Thursday. The third-year ace was brilliant in winning Game 1 against the Brewers last Wednesday, giving up two hits in eight scoreless innings of a 3-1 win.
Hamels has allowed more than two earned runs only once in his last 11 starts overall.
He will be challenged from the outset. The top of the Dodgers lineup - Rafael Furcal, Russell Martin and Ramirez - combined to go 13-for-35 (.371) with 10 RBIs in the division series while No. 5 hitter James Loney had some key hits to drive in a team-high six runs.
This series’ other No. 5 batter, Pat Burrell, homered twice in the Phillies’ series-clinching win over the Brewers. Also helping Philadelphia overcome the struggles of Utley and Howard in the first round were table setters Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, who combined to bat .367 (11-for-30) with five doubles and two homers.
“They’re the best team out there,” Ramirez said of the Phillies. “These guys are great. We don’t think we are better than them, but the key in the playoffs is to get in and anything can happen.”