The best player on the field when the Dodgers play these days -- at least when it's not a Clayton Kershaw start -- is Los Angeles shortstop Hanley Ramirez, and it has been that way the entire the season. At age 29, and after two years in which he batted a combined .252, the former National League Rookie of the Year (2006) and MVP runner-up ('09) is an impact player again. For all the talk about the importance of the unbridled energy of Yasiel Puig and the Boston Bailout trade of last season, it was the deal with the Marlins last year for Ramirez that may prove to be the biggest reason why the Dodgers could be an October juggernaut.
Los Angeles has hit .333 and scored 22 runs in three NLDS games against Atlanta. Ramirez is hitting .538 and looks balanced and locked in at the plate. In Game 3 last night he smacked three hits to three different parts of the field.
Ramirez played only 86 games in 2013 for the Dodgers because of injuries, but posted a 1.040 OPS and established himself as a key element of the team's midseason turnaround. L.A. was a .640 club (55-31) with Ramirez in the lineup and a losing team without him (37-39). Team officials say that Ramirez's run with the WBC champion Dominican Republic team -- his first taste of winning -- and the arrival of Puig have contributed to his bounceback season.
Now the Dodgers lineup is rolling -- even without Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier -- and Ramirez, with the protection of Adrian Gonzalez behind him, is the most dangerous hitter in it. Ramirez, who turns 30 in December, will enter the last season of his contract next year at a $16 million salary. Los Angeles plans to talk to him this winter about an extension, which only proves his timing at the negotiating table is as spot on as it is at the plate.
2. Cardinals not getting relief they need
St. Louis manager Mike Matheny lost the swing game of the NLDS on Sunday -- a game that was tied in the eighth inning at Pittsburgh -- without using his best bullpen arm, Trevor Rosenthal. It was that kind of day for Matheny, whose bullpen choices were not fundamentally incorrect but didn't work out the way he had in mind.
The carousel gone wrong began in the sixth inning with the score tied 2-2. The Pirates had runners on second and third with one out when Matheny ordered starting pitcher Joe Kelly to walk Pedro Alvarez to load the bases. Kelly had thrown just 85 pitches, but Matheny, instead of relying on power stuff from his starting pitcher, placed his bets on a sinkerball pitcher, Seth Maness, to throw a double play grounder. In Matheny's defense, Maness did induce batters to hit into double plays at a 30 percent rate this season. And he did not allow a sacrifice fly all year, yet Russell Martin nevertheless took a sinker from Maness that didn't sink and drove it for a sacrifice fly.
Matheny isn't the only one. Intentional walks have been popping up all over this postseason as managers not only seek better pitching matchups, but also double plays. Pitchers get double plays, however, only 11 percent of the time when they are in order. On Saturday night, Tigers manager Jim Leyland actually brought in a sinkerball starting pitcher, Rick Porcello, to throw a double play grounder with the infield in. Porcello threw three pitches and gave up a walk-off line-drive single instead. Ugh.
For Matheny, things turned sour again in the eighth. He handed a 3-3 game to Carlos Martinez, a 22-year-old right-hander with good stuff, but who had never before pitched in the eighth inning of a tie game. Martinez faced three batters, all three of whom reached base (though Andrew McCutcheon, who led off with a double, was erased on a fielder's choice for the first out of the inning). That's when Matheny called on Kevin Siegrist to get Pedro Alvarez (.180 vs. lefthanders) in a lefty-on-lefty matchup. But Alvarez took a great swing -- a flatter swing than his usual power stroke -- and grounded a single through the right side. One run came in.
At that point, Matheny stopped managing. Rosenthal stayed in the bullpen as Siegrist, the lefty, remained in the game to face the right-handed Martin. Not good. Martin whacked a single to drive in a big tack-on run.
Like Leyland the night before, Matheny stuck with lesser pitchers simply because he was on the road. Leyland stayed with Al Alburquerque in a tight spot in the bottom of the ninth, then after the loss admitted that he "probably extended him a little bit." Now Matheny's Cardinals face an elimination game on the road, while Leyland and Detroit are tied with the A's at one game apiece.
3. Welcome back
October always presents a spotlight for players who otherwise toil outside of such attention. Here are three of the best unexpected comeback stories of the LDS:
In August he was pitching Triple-A ball in Norfolk at age 36 and preparing to go home -- perhaps for good. But when Brandon Beachy's elbow started barking again, the Braves called the Orioles and asked for Garcia as an insurance policy. Baltimore sold his contract to Atlanta. Garcia did not start a game for Atlanta until Sept. 12. He had a 1.65 ERA in six games, three of them starts. And now tonight all he is being asked to do is to save the Braves' season, with Atlanta facing an elimination game in Los Angeles.
Marlon Byrd, Pirates
There are bad years and then there are miserable ones. Last year Byrd had one of those miserable ones that looked like it would be his last in the bigs. He hit .210 for the Cubs and the Red Sox, was released by Boston, got suspended for 50 games for a banned substance, wound up playing for the Culiacan Tomaterois of the Mexican Winter League and went nearly the entire offseason without a major league team signing him. The Mets decided to give him a shot and invited him to camp.
Byrd, who retooled his swing and worked on hitting breaking balls while in Mexico, slugged a career-high .511 for the Mets and Pirates, who acquired him in a trade four days before the deadline of postseason eligibility. Byrd, who had never been in the playoffs before, then whacked a home run in his first postseason at-bat. He's hitting .333 with a 1.042 OPS in four playoff games.
A former 12th round pick of Tampa Bay was the club was still called the Devil Rays, Vogt blew out his shoulder in the minors in 2009 and went hitless in his first 32 big-league at-bats for two teams (Tampa Bay and the A's). As a 28-year-old rookie, however, he delivered the winning hit in ALDS Game 2. Overlooked was his 10-pitch at-bat against Justin Verlander to end the seventh, which depleted Verlander's gas tank; otherwise, the Tigers ace may have thrown another inning.