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Dodgers keep winning without slugger

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CHICAGO – It has been commonly held against Alex Rodriguez(notes) that teams play better after he leaves. It happened in Seattle, where the Mariners won a record-tying 116 games in 2001 after he signed with Texas as a free agent, and it also was the case in Texas, where the Rangers improved by 18 games in the standings in 2005 after he was traded to the Yankees.

But if that's going to be said of A-Rod, will we soon be making the same observation about Manny Ramirez(notes)?

Since Ramirez was suspended for 50 games on May 10, the Los Angeles Dodgers are 12-5, a .706 winning percentage, even after a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs here Friday afternoon that ended a four-game road winning streak.

Before the suspension, the Dodgers were 22-11, a .667 clip. Red Sox officials, meanwhile, will gladly remind you that after trading Manny last season at the end of July, when they had their worst month of the year (13-16), they ran off their best two months of 2008, an 18-9 August and a 16-10 September.

The Dodgers have hit just nine home runs in Manny's absence, including Matt Kemp's(notes) shot into the left-field basket here Friday, but they're scoring runs at the same clip – 5.6 a game, despite being held to a total of three runs in two games in Wrigley, where the wind was blowing in Friday afternoon.

They began Friday with a nine-game lead, matching their biggest of the season in the NL West, and with Juan Pierre(notes) hitting over .400 and leading the league in hits and runs since taking over for Ramirez in left field, the Dodgers have shown sufficient offense. That may be a short-term development; they looked especially feeble Friday, with cleanup man James Loney(notes) whiffing in all four of his plate appearances and the team advancing only two other runners as far as second base against Ted Lilly(notes) and two Cubs relievers.

"I still think we can be better than we are,'' Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said Friday. "We've been fortunate that we've executed a lot and stayed together through a lot of injuries. [Hiroki] Kuroda out of the gate almost, [Hong-Chih] Kuo and currently Manny.

"Sometimes a situation like that can fragment your club. In this case, it solidified the club. Our younger players – you can no longer call them kids, they're young big league players with two, three, four years of experience – I think being in pennant races the last three years and winning two out of three has helped.''

Colletti said that the veteran presence provided by Casey Blake(notes), Rafael Furcal(notes), and Orlando Hudson(notes) in the everyday lineup, and by Mark Loretta(notes), Brad Ausmus(notes) and Juan Castro(notes) on the bench has made a huge difference.

"And Joe's been great,'' Colletti said, referring to manager Joe Torre. "Joe manages every day in a relentless way yet in a calm way. There's not much variance in Joe. And you don't ever want to disappoint Joe Torre if you're a player. He's too good to you.''

Ramirez has recently begun working out at Dodger Stadium, is expected to continue playing himself into shape at the team's spring-training facility in Arizona, then go on a minor league rehab assignment before his scheduled activation date of July 3. In the meantime, Torre had some advice to the fans: Don't do something silly like voting Ramirez to the All-Star team. Ramirez currently ranks fourth in the balloting for NL outfielders.

"I think if you asked Manny, he'd give you the same answer,'' Torre said in the dugout before the game.

These days, of course, Manny isn't taking any questions, certainly not from a public that shouldn't assume it will ever get answers about why Ramirez had a prescription for a women's fertility drug, one known to be part of a steroid cycle. Ramirez remains acutely embarrassed by the disclosure, but there are no indications that he intends to appear at any kind of public forum. Given the A-Rod example, it may avail him little to say anything beyond a quick apology, and no one's betting that he'll even deliver that much.

No one knows. Not the Dodgers, not Ramirez's agent, Scott Boras, and probably not the player himself. The bet here is that a Manny charm offensive ("I'm baacckk'') will be the likely strategy, especially if the Dodgers are still in first place when he returns.

Arms, not the man: Scoring runs without Manny, Colletti insists, is not his foremost worry. "Pitching is still my No. 1 concern,'' he said. "It was my No. 1 concern before Manny was suspended, it was my No. 1 concern the day after, and it still is today.''

The Dodgers began the day ranked second in the league in ERA behind the St. Louis Cardinals, but that statistic masks some issues.

"We've walked far too many guys,'' Colletti said of a staff that leads the majors in free passes with 222. "Drives me crazy. We don't go deep into games. We've got a young bullpen. That's got to be squared away. Whether we do it from inside or outside, with people who are here today, or people who are here tomorrow, we have to figure out how to get better pitching.''

Dodgers starters aren't pitching deep enough into games; ace Chad Billingsley(notes) went seven innings in Friday's defeat, but that's only the 17th time in 50 games that a Dodger starter has pitched into the seventh.

San Diego's Jake Peavy(notes) would do wonders for the L.A. staff, but it probably would take two players off the 25-man roster and a couple of prospects to get the deal done. That's a huge price to pay, on top of the guaranteed $52 million Peavy would be owed past this season. San Francisco's Brian Sabean won't trade Matt Cain(notes) to L.A., and unless Toronto's J.P. Ricciardi changes his mind on Roy Halladay(notes) or Cleveland's Mark Shapiro decides to move Cliff Lee(notes), there will be no easy solutions.

"It might be Kuroda,'' Colletti said of the injured right-hander, who has been sidelined since April 7 with a strained oblique. "Or [Clayton] Kershaw, once he gets his feet on the ground. He's where Billingsley was a couple of years ago. He doesn't need to strike out 12 guys. He can get three outs with five pitches.''

HITTING THE CORNERS

Picture [almost] perfect: One word that has disappeared from the baseball lexicon is Questec, the controversial pitch-tracking system used by Major League Baseball since 2001 to evaluate its umpires. The men in blue resisted the new technology, disputing its accuracy, while a number of players protested that the strike zone was different in parks where Questec was used, Curt Schilling(notes) once memorably taking a bat to a home-plate camera to register his objections. Questec has been replaced by ZE, or Zone Evaluation, which was developed by Major League Baseball Advanced Media and Sportvision.

Unlike Questec, which at its peak was in 11 parks, ZE has been installed in all 30 ballparks, and is a noticeable upgrade over the previous system, according to Mike Port, Major League Baseball's vice president of umpiring, who likened it to the difference between television 10 years ago and HD today.

Port disputes the notion that the strike zone was different in Questec parks than in non-Questec ones, saying the adjusted strike percentage (subtracting intentional walks) differed by only three to four-tenths of one percent, which translates to just a couple of pitches a game. "The objective numbers – the number of strikes called, pitchers' ERA, plate appearances per game – didn't bear out any difference,'' Port said. "Those numbers were almost identical.

"People need to understand that the purpose of Questec was to eliminate stuff being way, way off the plate. I think there was understandable apprehension [by the umpires]. People didn't know, am I going to grade out at only 20 percent accurate, how reliable is the technology? Once they found out via the technology how capable they were, some of those concerns became less.''

What Questec accomplished, and ZE continues, Port contends, is the establishment of a more consistent strike zone, with the average umpire grading out at 95 percent. There have been a few instances already this season, he said, in which an umpire scored a perfect 100 percent from ZE on ball-strike calls.

The strike zone, by the way, is defined as pitches that cross the plate at one and one half ball widths above the belt at its high point and the hollow of the rear knee at its low point. Everyone – pitchers, batters, umpires – is in general agreement that the strike zone has grown smaller.

"I think the strike zone is infinitely more consistent,'' Port said. "If someone says, that pitch was six inches off the plate, we can check that. Two years ago, the average distance off plate on incorrectly called outside pitches was 3.38 inches. Think how small that is. Admittedly, every once in a while, an umpire will miss badly, but we all have brain cramps. Hitters swing and miss, infielders miss ground balls. We try to minimize those.''

The ZE technology is considerably more advanced than the strike zones that TV game broadcasts use, Port said. ZE captures the position of a pitch 20 times before it reaches the plate, and like Questec records its data in three dimensions. That's what's often misleading during a TV broadcast, Port says. A replay might show where a catcher has received a pitch, but that might bear little relevance to where the pitch crossed the imaginary prism over the plate.

"A high percentage is nice, but what I look for are trends,'' Port said. "If an umpire misses five pitches in a game, his percentage might be 97, but were all five of those pitches in one spot? If so, he may have an adjustment to make. Guys get copies of the disk after every game and look for corrections. The technology, I believe, has helped guys realize whatever shortcomings they may have.''

Fungo hitting: The Boston Red Sox aren't the only team that has made inquiries about Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur(notes). The San Francisco Giants have also put out feelers. … One rumor that persists is that the Diamondbacks made A.J. Hinch its manager to keep him from being hired away by San Diego's new boss Jeff Moorad, who had Hinch as a client when he was a player agent and was Hinch's boss before he left Arizona to take over the Padres. … Royals ace Zack Greinke(notes) has gone 14 consecutive starts without giving up a home run, a team record. Jim Leyland's scouting report after Greinke beat the Tigers: "I think if you asked Manny, he'd give you the same answer." … Kyle Drabek, the Phillies' No. 1 draft pick in 2006 who underwent Tommy John elbow surgery the following year, has struck out 67 batters while walking 18 in 52 2/3 innings pitching for Class A Clearwater in the Florida State League. … Pedro Alvarez, whose controversial deadline-dealing after being drafted first by the Pittsburgh Pirates became the subject of a grievance, got off to a slow start in Class A Lynchburg but is batting .333 with two home runs and nine RBIs in his last 10 games. … It's not just Papi: While David Ortiz's(notes) ongoing power outage remains a constant topic, hardly anyone has said a peep about AL MVP Dustin Pedroia(notes), who homered in his first plate appearance of 2009 but has not hit another in 212 plate appearances since, entering Boston's three-game weekend in Toronto. Pedroia, unlike Ortiz, is still hitting, just without the power he exhibited last season when he hit 17 home runs. He was batting .333 with 15 doubles and was slugging .432.

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