Making a Run With Manny
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Twenty years ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers shocked the powerful Oakland Athletics in the World Series, which still ranks as one of the game's greatest upsets. As time has passed, the key lesson underscored by that stunning postseason remains relevant.
"I was on the other side, and obviously they shocked the hell out of us," said Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who was a bullpen stalwart on that A's team. "It just goes to show any team can get hot. And pitching can dominate any series."
On the 20th anniversary of their last World Series championship in 1988, the Dodgers are at it again. Behind outfielder Manny Ramírez and a pitching staff that is turning in its best work of the season, Los Angeles hopes to extend its surprising run by pulling off another upset in the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Dodgers find themselves once again as underdogs against the Phillies, owners of a potent lineup that thrives in a home park that tortures pitchers. Still, the Dodgers remain undeterred, bolstered by the belief that they are not the undermanned and underestimated squad that slogged through the regular season, which they proved by sweeping the Chicago Cubs in the first round.
"This is a totally different team, and I think people are starting to realize that," said Derek Lowe, who has anchored a pitching staff that has become more effective with additional run support, Ramírez's most important contribution.
Before Ramírez arrived, the Dodgers' season had been memorable for all the wrong reasons, primarily the horrendous free agent signing of Andruw Jones. Expected to bolster an ailing offense, Jones battled injuries and batted .158, and the Dodgers were merely a .500 team in the National League West, one of the game's weakest divisions.
Then, on Aug. 1, Ramírez played his first game for the Dodgers after being traded by the Boston Red Sox in the final move of a messy divorce. And while the starting pitching remained dominant, everything else changed in Los Angeles as a result of the trade-deadline acquisition of the slugging outfielder.
"When I came here, I wasn't thinking about what place the team was," Ramírez said. "I was just trying to see the opportunity I was going to get. I was just trying to come and change my image. . . . I'm just an easy guy to please. I came, I did my job and I'm here. I'm just blessed to be here."
Ramírez closed the regular season by hitting .396 for the Dodgers with 17 homers and 53 RBI. His 1.232 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) during that span ranks among the best offensive seasons in Dodgers history. As a result, the Dodgers have scored a half-run more per game since he arrived.
Despite being pitched around, Ramírez went 5 for 10 with a pair of homers in the division series sweep of the Cubs. The last time Los Angeles has seen anything like it was during that special season of 1988, Kirk Gibson's first with the Dodgers.
"Kirk Gibson did it with our team," said Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers manager that year. "When he came, he came and shook up our team. He led our team to where we wound up. One guy can do that, can carry a team. And that's what Manny did."
The biggest impact has been felt by the Dodgers' starting pitchers, who emerged as the team's most consistent performers, even as the offense underwent its metamorphosis.
"Earlier in the year we were still pitching very well, but we were coming away empty a lot of times," Manager Joe Torre said. "We wasted a lot of great pitching performances. It looked like they were going out there trying not to let any runs score. That's very tough for pitchers to pitch that way."
Dodgers pitchers had the lowest ERA and allowed the fewest runs in the league this season. But Honeycutt had watched his staff walk the tightrope so many times that he worried about the mental toll of pitching with scant run support.
"To a point, mentally, that can only go for so long before it starts weighing on you," Honeycutt said.
But since Ramírez's arrival, three of Los Angeles's top four starting pitchers have seen their run support rise by more than a run per game. Dodgers starters, meanwhile, watched their regular season ERA drop from 4.04 to 3.53 after Ramírez joined the team.
"You don't have the fear of 'Maybe this pitch is going to change a game' even if they score one or two runs," said Lowe, who will start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series tonight.
He said the difference was evident against the Cubs, who managed just six runs against Los Angeles in their three games. Even when Chicago took a two-run lead in Game 1, Lowe said he figured it was only a matter of time until his offense came through. Later, James Loney hit a grand slam and Ramírez added a solo shot.
Indeed, it was the first statement made on a national stage by the new-look Dodgers.
"You didn't look at us and say. 'This team is destined for big things,' " Lowe said. "To get everyone on the same page was, I think, very meaningful to find a way to win, because it was ugly for a long time."