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Dodger doldrums start with Ramirez

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – Dreads on his head, dread in the heads of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Manny Ramirez(notes) can't hit and the Dodgers can't win.

Yes, they've already clinched a playoff berth, even if the NL West crown continues to be maddeningly elusive. No, they won't last long at this rate. Not with Ramirez morphing from baseball's best hitter to its biggest rally killer. He struck out four times Friday night in a 4-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies, who trail the Dodgers by one game with two to play.

Ramirez swung and missed at fastballs, curveballs and changeups. Especially fastballs. He came to the plate with six runners on base, five in scoring position. Fans exhorted him to deliver, standing and screaming in Mannywood. Manny wouldn't.

By the third punchout, fans booed him lustily. He has struck out in his last seven official at-bats over three games, and the Dodgers' losing streak is at five. They could have taken the West by winning any of those games.

Not that Ramirez is openly concerned. "I don't control [the fans]," he said, sitting back in a chair in front of his locker, batting away questions far more effectively than he did pitches.

"My confidence is always up. I'm one of the best hitters. All you have to do is check my police report and see that I'm still a good hitter."

The baseball police might have ticketed him in the third inning – Ramirez was unaware of the count. After swinging through a curveball by Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) for strike three, he loitered near the batter's box, pushed his helmet down on his head, adjusted his elbow pad, took a deep breath … and heard the umpire say something to the effect of, "You only get three in this league."

"That was funny," Jimenez said.

Maybe Ramirez was flabbergasted that the Rockies were pitching to him at all. The at-bat began with the bases loaded, but Jimenez uncorked a wild pitch and the runners advanced, leaving first base open. Until recently, Ramirez – who has more grand slams in his career, 21, than any player except Lou Gehrig – would have been walked intentionally.

But Jim Tracy, who has led Colorado to a record of 74-40 since replacing Clint Hurdle as manager, is well aware that for three months Ramirez routinely has been blown away by hard-throwing pitchers such as Jimenez.

"Manny is living on soft stuff, that's all he can get around on," said a scout for a team the Dodgers might meet in the playoffs. "Guys who wouldn't have dreamed of challenging him in the past are going right at him with fastballs."

Guys like Rafael Betancourt(notes), who struck out Ramirez with one out and two on in the seventh. Jimenez, who owns one of the league's liveliest arms, got him three times.

"You can't throw him too many breaking balls," Jimenez said. "I located my fastball good against him. I was throwing hard."

The Dodgers tried to execute the same game plan they used to defeat the occasionally wild Jimenez three times this season – get ahead in the count, take walks, and deliver hits with runners in scoring position when he is forced to groove pitches. Jimenez walked four and threw 115 pitches in six innings, but the Dodgers managed only two hits against him.

One hit from Ramirez could have changed the outcome. Champagne would have flowed in the Dodgers clubhouse. The Rockies would have talked about how all they cared about was making the playoffs, that the wild card was fine. Instead, they have the NL West title in their sights.

Don't think Tracy doesn't want it. He said before the game that a division title would be "something that's never been done in the history of the game." The Rockies' media staff was incredulous. What could he possibly be referring to? A couple of hours of intensive research later, the answer: No team has won a title after trailing by more than 15 games. The Rockies were 15½ games back of the Dodgers on June 3.

"We aren't going away," Tracy said. "It's a lot more fun to come out here knowing something is at stake."

The Dodgers also know what's at stake, but they aren't having fun. A huge question mark clouds their playoff hopes, a hulking, 37-year-old dreadlocked question mark. Can Ramirez turn it around by Wednesday, when the Dodgers open against the St. Louis Cardinals or Philadelphia Phillies?

"All I can do is write his name in the lineup, pat him on the back and expect better things to happen," manager Joe Torre said. "We're committed to him. He's done tremendous things in the postseason."

Ramirez is the all-time leader with 28 postseason home runs, and his 74 postseason RBIs rank second. But doubts linger. Presumably he no longer is taking whatever caused his testosterone level to spike before his suspension. Manny is mortal.

"When you get suspended, there is a whole lot of stuff that people say," Torre said. "Fair or not."

Ramirez joked his way out of the clubhouse, reporters trailing him to the door. What about the strikeouts? What about not knowing the count? He took one more half-hearted swing as he stepped out the door.

"That's all in the past," he said. "It's over. We'll all come back [Saturday] and try again."

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