Dodgers fail to make a game of it, but guesses on Manny Ramirez might

PITTSBURGH — The Dodgers came out flat, but you know how hard it is to get up for an opener.

Vin Scully apparently wasn't the only one not to show up.

It was the closest thing to starting the season with a bye, the Pirates, perennial losers and featuring the lowest payroll in baseball, and the Dodgers' responding by pitching guys who should be working for the Pirates.

The Dodgers' ace, Vicente Padilla, now has a 14.54 earned-run average, Ramon Ortiz 13.50 and George Sherrill 40.50. Good thing the Pirates didn't get to bat in the bottom of the ninth.

Garrett Jones hit a home run off Padilla, Padilla later passing on congratulations to the fan who got the ball, but having to be told the ball was hit so far it now swims with the fishes in the Allegheny River.

And there you have it, the Dodgers' chances of going undefeated this season lost on the first day, Manager Joe Torre predicting earlier that this team will be only as good as the pitching — only 117 days until the Major League Baseball trading deadline.

With the season lost now, it appears all that's left to be determined is where Manny Ramirez might end up next year.

He's already pronounced his career over in Los Angeles after this season, and so be it, but is Ramirez already finished as a big-time baseball player?

It may be the most interesting question facing the Dodgers the rest of the season, the answer going a long way in deciding whether the Dodgers can somehow overcome this 0-1 start.

And as interesting as it might be to the Dodgers and their fans, how well Ramirez does will determine how much anyone is willing to pay him to play on. If anything.

For the first time in his career, Ramirez must prove himself worthy of a big contract, or at the very least demonstrate he's not too old and really can hit the ball hard without the aid of female fertility drugs.

There has always been the baggage that comes with him, no one but the Dodgers seemingly interested a year ago when he was free to sign anywhere.

He had shown Dodgers' management, though, he was capable of inspiring players around him as well as the paying customers, while at the same time coming off as a good, fun-loving guy.

The Dodgers paid $45 million for the complete package, the guy who changed the entire Dodger Stadium experience, but lost 50 games last year to suspension, and the team doesn't figure to get much marketing mileage out of Ramirez anymore.

He's already climbed back into his Boston shell, doing what he did there when he knew he was on his way out.

He's no longer the leader in the clubhouse. Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp have taken over, and now there's some suspicion that for the first time in his career he's been hit hard by self-doubt.

He's dedicated himself to playing better, his work ethic never in question, but the guy who once was a walking distraction in the clubhouse has shut everything down to focus on his own game.

If it works, it's great news for the Dodgers, a motivated Ramirez giving them the punch on offense they're going to need to overcome a shortage in quality pitching.

If it doesn't, he becomes the headache everyone said L.A. would one day feel, and how will that play with free-agent suitors next year?

"I think Manny is a lot better," Torre says, but only better than what Ramirez was after being suspended for cheating and then bullied by opposing pitchers.

The word in baseball circles last season was that no one feared Ramirez anymore, pitchers throwing fastballs inside and getting them by him.

Was it because the 50-game suspension was too much to overcome without more training time, or the beginning of the end?

"I sense he's going to be productive," Torre says. "His balance and basic approach to hitting are so much better. I think he was all about balance and he didn't have it after coming off the suspension. He took a lot of strikes and swung at a lot of bad pitches."

Torre has always maintained the suspension embarrassed Ramirez and took a personal toll on him. He likes what he sees now and what he heard when they talked over the winter.

"I think last year hurt him," Torre says. "He may be flamboyant, but he's also shy and sensitive."

Torre says, "Manny is very determined to recapture what he had," but there is no way of knowing whether Ramirez will be the hitter again to rock L.A., or the guy who will turn 38 on May 30, and will begin to look like it in the batter's box.

"If I see the same technique [when he was doing well], but do not get the same results, then it's time to wonder," Torre says. "But the really good ones make adjustments."

It's going to be an adjustment, all right, the clown now replaced by the frown, and a question whether Dodgers' baseball will be as much fun.

Ramirez had two hits in the opener, a single and a slicing double to right, as well as two runs batted in. He finished two for five.

He didn't have anything to say before the game, or after, the Dodgers just going quietly to defeat.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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