Hanley Ramirez finally hustling and hitting like Marlins need him to

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The Marlins shortstop chased a pop-up beyond his normal patrol into mid-range leftfield on Tuesday night, extended his left arm in a noble but ultimately futile effort to make an over-the-shoulder catch and landed with the brunt of the impact on his left shoulder.

Ramirez immediately writhed in pain and held his left arm across his body as if restrained by an imaginary sling. He left the game but the injury scare proved to be only that, as he received a sprained left shoulder diagnosis that left him with a day-to-day prognosis.

"I fell, [my shoulder] went out, came back in," Ramirez, whose MRI on Wednesday confirmed the sprain, said. ". . . Hopefully, it's nothing bad and I can come back quick.''

The path Ramirez took to the ball was vaguely reminiscent of a regrettable play last May against the Diamondbacks, though there was nothing familiar about his effort. In that instance he followed a pop-up to a similar spot, accidentally kicked the baseball into the leftfield corner and then jogged after it, an apparent act of loafing that led to then-manager Fredi Gonzalez to remove him from that game and bench him for the next one.

That was merely the most egregious offense of several in which Ramirez hasn't appeared to play to maximum effort and his otherworldly full potential. In the last three seasons, at least twice has a teammate -- Dan Uggla in 2009 and Logan Morrison earlier this year -- reportedly challenged his desire. When new manager Jack McKeon took over the club six weeks ago on June 20, he sat Ramirez for his first game because of what he thought was poor hustle the previous day.

In each instance Ramirez defended his actions, but since the most recent incident he has indeed been a different player in production and perception.

"He's been playing real hard for us," McKeon said Wednesday. "I can't say enough good things about the effort he's given us. He's not hitting like we all know he can, but maybe it'll happen in the next month or so. He's been working at it."

He's also been playing like the face of the franchise Florida wants -- and needs -- him to be. After that last benching McKeon started him as his cleanup hitter for the first time in Ramirez's career and in his 37 starts as the No. 4 hitter has shown more of a resemblance to his old self, batting .304 and slugging .500, upping his average from the Mendoza line to .243.

It's likely no fluke that his hot streak coincided with the Marlins' recent turnaround. Before Ramirez's recent resurgence Florida was mired in an 11-game losing streak and 1-19 start to the month of June. Since then the club is 23-14 and back to .500 for the first time since June 12.

It's just the latest example of how valuable Ramirez is to the Marlins as they prepare to "move South," as the club refers to the nearly 15-mile southward trip from their current home in Sun Life Stadium to the new $515-million retractable-roof ballpark in Miami's Little Havana that opens next season.

The Marlins recently stood firm at the trade deadline, wanting to keep their roster intact in advance of next year's move. The franchise has a gifted core of young talent -- the average age of their position players is just 27.3, tied with the Pirates for the youngest in the National League -- but it is the 27-year-old Ramirez who is unquestionably the team's best player, making him essential to helping fill the as-yet-unnamed new park.

It wasn't so long ago that the Marlins were publicly chastised by Major League Baseball for not spending enough money on player salaries, but their payroll has risen in large increments from a low point of $21 million in 2008 to $37 million in '09, $47 million in '10 and $58 million this season. With the expected influx of revenue at the new stadium, it could go even higher.

"We're hopeful," general manager Michael Hill said. "We haven't gotten the final word of what things will look like [financially] as we get to 2012, but obviously we'll continue to build and add to our core and hope to bring another championship down to South Florida."

No matter how much the payroll could reasonably increase, the Marlins aren't likely to add anyone approaching the stature of their incumbent shortstop. Ramirez, who has three years and $36.5 million left on his six-year, $70 million contract that runs through 2014, is the most critical part of the team's core. Only ace Josh Johnson, who is owed $27.5 million the next two years, makes anything close to what Ramirez does and, given Johnson's recent injury history and position as a starting pitcher, doesn't compare to Ramirez, a three-time All-Star, as the club's franchise player.

That's why it's so important for Florida to make sure Ramirez is producing and hustling.

New hitting coach Eduardo Perez, a 13-year major league veteran who came on board June 8 after having most recently working as an analyst on ESPN's Baseball Tonight, seems to be a positive influence. Ramirez said he doesn't watch much video, but Perez is a film rat who has offered a lot of advice about the player's readiness at the plate and making sure the timing mechanism of his leg kick is done efficiently.

"He's been watching a lot of video from the past and trying to fix everything in my leg, my hands, whatever," Ramirez said of Perez. "What's wrong he's trying to fix it from the videos."

"I don't know how to describe it," Ramirez added, "but I've just been swinging at a lot of strikes and being more patient and more selective at home plate."

Perez, who recalled doing a television segment with Ramirez a few years ago in spring training, said that his new protégé was no longer as confident at the plate as he was back then. Perez went to work with Ramirez on his timing, to get his leg kick started sooner. The coach found a willing pupil and left impressed with the player's receptiveness to teaching and to his dedication.

"It might not look like it on TV," Perez said, "but this guy really cares."

The perception that he doesn't still sticks to Ramirez like his jersey in the muggy South Florida air. Two weeks ago, Marlins special assistant Jeff Conine said in a radio interview on The Dan LeBatard Show that he would prefer trading Ramirez, saying, "I think there are some nights where he doesn't try as hard as he should."

Ramirez retaliated by calling out Conine and saying he was going to take the former player's Mr. Marlin nickname and have a Hall of Fame career that will make the club retire his No. 2. "If he's got a problem, just come over and talk to me like a man," Ramirez told Marlins beat writers. "Don't be a chicken, talking on the [radio], because whatever you say is going to stay out there."

Ramirez's rant may not have been the best possible response. His effort on Tuesday night was.