Dodgers' hopes rest with Manny

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

PHILADELPHIA – There will come a time this winter when Los Angeles Dodgers management will have to pay Manny Ramirez or not, to commit to Manny Ramirez or not, scary as that may sound.

One last phone call from Scott Boras.

One last long look at the bottom line.

One last weary sigh.

At that pivotal and sober moment, they would be wise to heed two days in fall, two days in South Philly.

The players they suppose will tow the franchise into the next decade, they don't have the legs for it yet. They don't yet have the heads for it or the stomachs for it.

No matter how the National League Championship Series is resolved, they will remain skilled and promising ballplayers. They also will remain young by their birth certificates and raw by the standards of the game.

Ramirez drove them to win the NL West. Then he hit .500 in the NL Division Series. He made them laugh and he showed them plate discipline and he hit a tracer shot into the left-field bleachers early Friday evening, drawing them to within three runs of the Philadelphia Phillies, his third home run of the playoffs.

The Dodgers' decision-makers could review September and October and choose to view them as breakthrough experiences for James Loney and Matt Kemp and Russell Martin and Andre Ethier, and choose to decide they'd become winners forevermore. They could choose to release the organization into their hands, and it still will be too soon.

You can't kick them out into the real world now. They're not ready to win by themselves. The game finds them, two games find them, and they return to Los Angeles needing to win four of their next five games if they don't want the experience to end now.

Chad Billingsley, tomorrow's ace, got seven outs Friday. He became the third pitcher to allow as many as eight runs in fewer than three innings in a postseason start. He shook his head and ever so regretted what he threw and when he threw it, which is his own fault, but drags catcher Martin into it too. When the second and third innings tilted downhill for the Phillies' lineup, the young battery did little but skid downhill with it.

"It wasn't there," Billingsley said. "One of those things."

He shrugged.

"It was just pitch selection," he said. "That's all it was. Should have done something different."

Martin leaned back in his chair, steam from the nearby showers shining his forehead. Earlier, Martin had overheard a reporter ask Ramirez about Ramirez's influence with the young hitters here, and where that might take them all over the next few days. Martin, from a neighboring locker, mocked the question with a laugh. So charmed is he by his own undeniable skills, he doesn't get what happened here even now, even when he lived with it for 2½ months.

"When you're not throwing the ball like you want to," Martin said of Billingsley, "it's easy to second guess yourself."

Six batters in, Billingsley had retired five, four by strikeout. Eleven of the next 14 Phillies reached base against Billingsley. He had the stuff. The Phillies adjusted. Billingsley and Martin did not.

So, it was the third inning at Citizens Bank Park and on an otherwise delightful evening Joe Torre was handing the baseball to his fourth pitcher and conducting a double switch, granting Jeff Kent six innings of mop-up work at second base, and leaving the Dodgers to come back from six runs down in a ballpark they'd hit two home runs (in 156 plate appearances) in during the regular season.

Try as they might, the Dodgers put runners on base against an imprecise but game Brett Myers, but did not push them home. They are 3 for 14 with runners in scoring position for the series; Ramirez is 2 for 2.

The Phillies have finished their rallies. The Dodgers have waited on Manny.

The Phillies have scored six runs with two out. The Dodgers have Manny's three-run homer with two out.

The Phillies have struck out 14 times in the series. Martin, Ethier, Kemp and Loney have combined to strike out 12 times.

It's not their fault. They haven't done this before. It's hard. Myers knocked Martin off his feet with a fastball in the first inning and finished him with a curveball away. Then Myers unapologetically underlined RAMIREZ with a fastball behind Manny's back. This is hardball, which the Dodgers learned a thing or two about in September. This is the postseason, which looked easy for a week against the heavily burdened Chicago Cubs.

These are the lessons of the game, not lost on the Dodgers' young players, but not entirely covered yet, either.

"Guys are playing like they've been in the postseason before," Loney insisted. "They confidence level is there. That's how we built the team. Everybody – the coaches, everybody – they know these guys aren't going to be intimidated by the postseason."

The next step would be to hit, and then after that to hit without Manny in the middle of the lineup. It's not time for that, though. Not yet.

Ramirez buttoned his shirt. The buses waited. He once played for a team that trailed the New York Yankees by three games in the league championship series. The Boston Red Sox came back. They won. According to legend, the finishing kick to that series was fueled in part by pregame nips of whisky. Maybe true, maybe not.

Either way, Ramirez smiled and joked, "It might be time for the Crown Royal."

And it might be time to start thinking about whether any of this is real – or sustainable – without Manny.

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