Hanley Ramirez took the field for the Dodgers on Sunday, and with him came perhaps the most interesting story line of the remainder of the regular season.
The Dodgers' lineup looked a lot more imposing, with Ramirez back after sitting out 15 days because of a strained oblique. With Ramirez at shortstop instead of light-hitting Erisbel Arruebarrena or Miguel Rojas, the Dodgers have an offensive dimension at the position most rivals cannot come close to matching.
If, that is, Ramirez is hitting. If not, the Dodgers might have to consider whether they are better off without him in the lineup.
They could see why Sunday, in an 11-3 loss to the New York Mets. There was no need to make too much of one game, not when the Dodgers lost by eight runs and their starting pitcher was chased after three innings.
And not when Ramirez went hitless in four at-bats, failing to get the ball out of the infield, and struggled with the first two ground balls hit to him. Ramirez had not played since Aug. 8, and he returned without a minor league rehabilitation game.
"A little rusty," said Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly.
For all the fanfare over Yasiel Puig's loud arrival last year, Ramirez was the Dodgers' biggest bat. When he was healthy, they were hot. He played in barely half the games, but he batted .345, with a .638 slugging percentage.
This is no ordinary shortstop. He might have been the best hitter in the league last season, and Mattingly was thrilled to write his name on the lineup card Sunday.
"It changes the lineup from the standpoint of the length of it and the number of guys you have to go through just to navigate it," Mattingly said. "He's a dangerous guy in that lineup, so it's good to have him back."
Ramirez is batting .274 this season, with a .450 slugging percentage. That puts more focus on his defense, considered below average by scouts and statistical analysts.
In the Mets' five-run third inning Sunday, Ramirez failed to stop a hard-hit ground ball a step or two to his right, a tough play but one that could have been turned into an inning-ending double play, then fielded a subsequent ground ball but bounced the throw to first base.
After the game, Ramirez said he was pleased that he could play with "no pain" and shrugged at Mattingly's assessment that he was rusty.
"Maybe," he said. "We'll see."
And the hard-hit ground ball?
"It was a bullet," Ramirez said. "Anything else? Negative stuff?"
The Dodgers were happy to take whatever Ramirez gave them on defense last year, because he was so dominant on offense. They went 51-26 (.662) when he started last year, 41-44 (.442) when he did not.
The numbers tell a different story this year. The Dodgers are 53-42 (.558) when he starts, 21-16 (.568) when he does not.
Ramirez was such an impact player on offense last year that the Dodgers all but put him in bubble wrap down the stretch, resting him frequently in September so he would be available in October. He batted .500 in the division series, but he suffered a fractured rib when he was hit by a pitch in the first game of the league championship series.
That performance in the first round last fall goes a long way toward cementing his place in the lineup, according to Mattingly.
"We know what he's capable of doing, in September and when you get into the playoffs," Mattingly said.
But the Dodgers are not in the playoffs yet, and Mattingly said Ramirez will need to play every day for now. The Dodgers lead the National League West by 4 1/2 games. At this time last year, they led by 9 1/2 games.
The best option — for Ramirez and the Dodgers — is for him to hit, and hit well enough that the team can overlook his glove. The Dodgers have 30 regular-season games left, time enough for Ramirez to show off his bat.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times