MIAMI — The Dodgers' offense struggled through most of last season, batting .264 and outscoring only three other National League teams.
But it has been a different story this season. Nearly a quarter of the way into their schedule, the Dodgers are second in the majors in hitting (.289) and runs (210) and tied for first in on-base percentage (.373). And while the addition of Orlando Hudson and the return of Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake has contributed to that, perhaps a bigger reason for the turnaround is the fact hitting coach Don Mattingly has been with the team every day since spring training.
"It's been huge," Manager Joe Torre said. "He just seemed to simplify things for players. And he isn't that far removed from playing to know what worked for him."
Family problems kept Mattingly away from the team for much of the first half last season. He joined the team full time at the All-Star break, though, and the Dodgers hit .281 over the final two months. And although that surge coincided with the acquisitions of Ramirez and Blake, the Dodgers haven't missed a beat since Ramirez's suspension 10 days ago, averaging nearly six runs and collecting at least 11 hits in seven of the first eight games the slugging outfielder missed.
"It's definitely good to have the one voice," said Juan Pierre, who had three hits Saturday and is batting .447 as Ramirez's replacement. "And he knows your swing. Him coming in and out, he had never seen guys play before.
"[Now] it's consistent. You kind of work together at what he likes to do and then what works for you. And you get a routine and then it's like clockwork."
Although Mattingly is quick to credit the players for the Dodgers' offensive success, he acknowledges being around them every day has helped him develop a rapport.
"It's trust," said Mattingly, a .307 lifetime hitter and six-time All-Star in 14 seasons with the Yankees. "You don't just come in and start telling guys what to do. You've got to build a trust with them. They've got to see that you're going to stay with them if they're going good or going bad.
"You have to build that relationship with each guy. And that takes time. You don't just get instant respect and credibility with a guy until you've been here and proven it."
Torre remains hopeful that Ramirez, who met with the team Friday for the first time since his May 7 suspension for violating baseball's drug policy, will rejoin the Dodgers next week to begin working out.
"There's no definitive thing on that," he said. "I expect him to do that at some point. I think he's just trying to figure out what's going to be comfortable and what makes sense."
Ramirez, who apologized to his coaches and teammates, has yet to speak with the media or fans since his suspension. And Torre has said the sooner he does that the quicker he will be able to concentrate on baseball again.
"I just want him to get into some type of routine that will occupy his mind," Torre said. "Any time there's some stress going on in your life, sometimes the more time you have nothing to do just clutters up your thought process."
Xavier Paul said he received several calls and text messages from friends and family members who saw his first big league homer, a pinch-hit shot in the sixth inning of Friday's game.
But even more precious was the fact he got the ball back when the fan who retrieved it in the right-field bleachers met with the Dodgers rookie and exchanged the souvenir for another baseball and one of Paul's bats.
Delay of game
The telecast of Saturday's game on Channel 9 was delayed 50 minutes because the start time fell within the exclusive window Fox had for its broadcast of the Giants-Mets game.