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BILL PLASCHKE

The reason isn't clear, but Manny Ramirez isn't right

The Dodgers slugger is missing in action again in a loss at Cincinnati.

August 29, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM CINCINNATI — He used to own this kind of moment, circling it with his giant swing, swarming it with his giant smile.

On Friday, he surrendered it.

He used to capture these kinds of games, grabbing the bat while a stadium grabbed its breath, imposing his will, demanding his say.

On Friday, he fled it.

Something is wrong with Manny Ramirez. Something different than a hitch. Something more than a slump.

Something is wrong here, something that might be lodged as deeply in the head as in the hips, something that perhaps batting practice can't fix.

Accustomed to finding safety on his back, the Dodgers found themselves again grasping for ahhs Friday after another night of Manny Being Goat.

The Dodgers lost a 4-2 decision to the makeshift Cincinnati Reds in a game that would have been vastly different if their best hitter had done just one thing.

Like, show up.

"No question, we need him," said Manager Joe Torre afterward.

"No question, he's really trying," said batting coach Don Mattingly.

No question, he is not the same hitter who was suspended for 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy.

As his worst hitting performance as a Dodger illustrated Friday, he's not even close.

On a cool Midwestern night, beneath the image of the Ohio River rolling placidly beyond the right-field stands, Ramirez churned and churned and churned into more dark desperation.

First inning, runner on second, two out, Ramirez takes ball one, then swings at three consecutive pitches to strike out.

Sixth inning, runners on first and second. Ramirez takes ball one, then swings at the next two pitches to fly out.

Eighth inning, runners on first and second, one out, Ramirez swings at both pitches and flies out.

All of which set up the ninth inning dramatics that he once wore as delightfully as his dreads.

Bases loaded, two out, he swings at two pitches, takes ball one, fouls off two more pitches and sets up a spinning Francisco Cordero slider.

That he watched. For strike three. Looking. Leaving. Ramirez hustled away from home plate with his eyes wide and his helmet in his hand.

Five weeks after stunning the Reds in Los Angeles with a pinch-hit grand slam, he had stunned his own team with a walk-off punchout.

In all, he saw 21 pitches, swung at 15 of them, and made fair contact on only one, a fourth-inning single.

"Right now, he's a little out of whack," Torre said.

The words, "right now" and "little" being understatements.

Ramirez really hasn't been right since Homer Bailey, who pitched brilliantly for the Reds on Friday, hit him in the left hand on July 21 at Dodger Stadium.

Yes, there was the Bobblebomb, but it turns out, that may have been a one-pitch wonder. Since being hit in the hand, Ramirez has batted .266 with only three homers in 34 games. During that time, he has just one fewer strikeout (32) than hits (33).

Oh, and he's had but one extra-base hit in the last 13 games.

In all, the team that was once baseball's best has gone 26-24 since his return from the suspension, and everyone's favorite Dodger has actually been booed at home, and now folks are starting to wonder if this will last until October.

"Maybe he's gotten into some bad habits and he's trying to compensate for something," Torre said.

Although the official explanations for his slump involve those habits, and are technical and convoluted, those familiar with steroids quietly submit one simple reason:

Ramirez trying to kill the ball to overcompensate for the fact that he's no longer juiced, attempting to show everyone that his previous success was him and not steroids.

There are those who also wonder whether he is struggling with the loss of that invincible feeling that steroids give hitters, a syndrome commonly associated with those who are struggling to find themselves after coming clean.

Some, such as Jason Giambi, can overcome this feeling and learn to be a good hitter again. Others, such as Sammy Sosa, never could.

Of course, it could be just the hand. That was my first question to him Friday night, asking whether the hand had been quietly bothering him for five weeks.

"That was nearly months ago and you ask me about it now?" he said.

"Well, something is wrong," I said.

At this point, teammate Orlando Hudson, apparently feeling that the personable Ramirez required protection from the media, chimed in with a high-pitched ridicule.

"Why do we strike out?" he said. "Why do we ground out?!"

Hudson was hitless in four at-bats Friday, and has scored all of seven runs this month, but this wasn't about him.

In Ramirez's case, all the questions are legitimate. Why, indeed?

"Tomorrow is another day," he said, hustling out the door. "You want to ask me any more questions, text me."

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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