Manny Ramirez continues to insist that everything is fine.
"We'll open the champagne Friday," he said on his way out of the visiting clubhouse in San Diego two nights ago.
Only everything isn't fine.
The magic number for the Dodgers to win the National League West has remained at one for the last five days, leaving them in a position to be overtaken for the division title by the Colorado Rockies, who visit them for a season-ending three-game series that starts tonight at Dodger Stadium.
If the Dodgers are swept, they'll head into the playoffs as the wild card. Yet the prospect of playing in the postseason without home-field advantage might not be as daunting as another obstacle they could encounter: that of Manny not being Manny.
Asked whether the Dodgers could make a run this month without Ramirez reverting to his form of years past, one NL scout laughed.
"No," he said without hesitation.
Ramirez has offered few signs in recent weeks -- make that months -- that he can still be the same player who last year almost single-handledly took the Dodgers to their first NL Championship Series in 20 years.
"How many guys are like that?" the scout said. "Albert Pujols, maybe, and he's the best player in the game. Remember, Manny's in the back end of his career."
Ramirez was four for 22 (.182) with no home runs and three runs batted in on a trip that concluded on Wednesday in which the Dodgers were 3-9 against three teams that are a combined 94 games under .500 and dropped the last four games, any of which could have secured the division title.
Scouts say they have noticed an increased willingness on the part of pitchers to challenge Ramirez, particularly on the inside part of the plate. One AL scout pointed out how in the Dodgers' loss in San Diego on Tuesday, Cesar Ramos -- a left-hander! -- repeatedly went inside on Ramirez.
"That never would have happened a year ago," said the scout, who added that Ramirez doesn't appear to have the same strength or confidence he had last fall.
Is it the 50 games he missed?
Ramirez said no.
Is it age?
Ramirez, who turned 37 in May, said it's not.
Is it that he might have stopped doing something after he was suspended for 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy?
Ramirez won't touch the subject.
On the surface, numbers appear to back the last theory.
In the 27 games Ramirez played before he was suspended, he hit .348 with six home runs and 20 runs batted in. In the 75 games since his return, he's hitting .274 with 13 home runs and 42 RBIs.
But there's another date that might have been a turning point: July 21.
That was the day Ramirez was struck in the hand by a fastball from Cincinnati Reds pitcher Homer Bailey.
The next night, Ramirez hit a grand slam in a pinch-hit at-bat on his bobblehead night, so the assumption was his hand was fine.
But was it?
From July 3, the day Ramirez came back from his league-imposed exile, to July 20, he hit .319 with four home runs and 11 RBIs in 14 games. From July 21 on, he has hit .263 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs in 61 games.
Ramirez denied that the hand ever caused him any problems, but Manager Joe Torre wasn't as sure, saying that it could have caused him to alter his mechanics.
If the Padres think Ramirez isn't the hitter he used to be, they weren't saying.
"I still think he's going to be a force next week," Padres Manager Bud Black said, referring to the first round of the playoffs.
No player has hit as many home runs in the postseason as Ramirez, who has 28. His 74 RBIs rank second all-time.
Ramirez was five for 10 with two home runs and three RBIs in the Dodgers' three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs in the NL division series last year. In the NL Championship Series, he continued to hit when his teammates stopped doing so -- he was eight for 15 with two more homers and seven RBIs.
Ramirez refuses to say he isn't the same player.
"I just have to keep swinging," he said.
But Ramirez said that he doesn't have to shoulder the same load as last season because of how Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier have emerged as star players
"It's not the same," Ramirez said.
Like Ramirez, Torre said he thinks the experience of playing in the postseason last year will be a plus for many Dodgers.
"They're good players in their own right," Torre said.
Plus, the Dodgers can fall back on the knowledge they were 29-21 in Ramirez's absence.
"We had to do it for 50 games. It was a good opportunity for us to learn," said Ethier, who became a middle-of-the-lineup threat, leading the Dodgers in home runs (31) and RBIs (105).
Kemp was the team's most consistent offensive performer this season.
"I watch the game more, see what they're doing to other people," said Kemp, who is hitting .301 with 26 home runs and 100 runs batted in.
Not everyone is convinced.
Ethier hasn't hit well on the road (.238, compared with .306 at home) or against left-handers (.189, compared with .302 against right-handers). The NL scout who spoke of how much the Dodgers need Ramirez said he would sit Ethier against left-handers.
"He's an out," the scout said. "Play Juan Pierre."
But the same scout thinks the Dodgers still have a chance to reach the World Series.
Why? Because of Ramirez.
"To me, he's still a scary guy," the scout said. "I don't care. He's still one of the best hitters in the game."
Times staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.