As Manny Ramirez ran zigzag drills on the Dodger Stadium outfield to test his sore calf muscle, Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp was asked about Ramirez's not being in the lineup because the enigmatic slugger was on the disabled list.
"It's a big bat, man," Kemp said. "It's a big bat we're missing right now."
On Saturday, though, a healed Ramirez returns to the active roster -- exactly one year after he was banished from the Dodgers' dugout to start a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy.
And his return this time adds another unknown to a Dodgers squad that's already rife with question marks, a team with suspect pitching and hitting -- despite the recent clout of Andre Ethier and James Loney -- that's left the Dodgers under .500 this season.
The Dodgers need a productive Ramirez in the lineup, and before his injury Ramirez appeared to have rebounded nicely from the slump that dogged the left fielder in the latter half of 2009 after his suspension.
This season, Ramirez was batting .415 through 13 games when he got hurt, with two home runs and 12 runs batted in. Moreover, he appeared to have his old form back: spraying the ball to all fields, a balanced hitting stroke, not chasing many pitches out of the strike zone.
But it was only 13 games, and as Ramirez nears his 38th birthday this month, the question lingers whether the Dodgers will get the Manny whose bat thrilled Los Angeles before his suspension or the Manny who seemed in decline and less intimidating to opposing pitchers.
Don Mattingly thinks it's the former. The Dodgers' hitting coach and former New York Yankees batting great said he was asked all winter, " 'What are you going to do with Manny?' I said Manny's our last concern. I knew he'd figure it out."
After joining the Dodgers in mid-2008, Ramirez hit .396 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs in 53 games, and in his first 27 games of 2009, he batted .348 with six home runs.
He returned from suspension on July 3, but only 14 games later, Ramirez was hit by a pitch on his left wrist, creating more questions as the season wore on. In his last 68 regular-season games, he hit only .255 with 10 home runs.
Shortstop Rafael Furcal, one of Ramirez's closest friends on the Dodgers, said Ramirez since then "has gotten in shape, he's taken a lot of batting practice, and I think he'll come back ready."
The Dodgers had jumped out to a 21-8 start last year when Ramirez was suspended, then they went 29-21 without him. This season, the Dodgers were 7-8 when he was hurt and, entering Friday's game, they'd gone 5-8 while he was on the disabled list.
Ramirez -- in the second year of a two-year, $45-million contract -- stopped talking to the media shortly after spring training started. But when he reported to camp, he told The Times that he "needed to figure out a couple of" things to fix his hitting and "that's what I did."
More precisely, Mattingly said Ramirez got out of a bad habit he developed after his suspension.
Pitchers routinely throw inside to Ramirez, hoping to tie up his swing, and "the only difference last year was that he chased [pitches] in there," Mattingly said.
"He started looking in there, started cheating in there, and when you cheat you open up and your swing gets slower," he said. In addition, with Ramirez so focused on inside pitches, that "opened up the other side of the plate" for teams to get Ramirez out with pitches on the outside corner, he said.
"So the only difference in what he did in spring training and until now is just hit, not worrying about the ball in," Mattingly said. "If it's in, he tries to lay off."
What hasn't changed with Ramirez, the Dodgers said, is the lighthearted atmosphere he lends to the clubhouse regardless of how he's hitting.
"It's the same," Kemp said. "He just likes to have fun and loves to play the game. He's the same Manny that I knew when I first met him two years ago."
But can he help reverse the Dodgers' poor start?
"I think so," Manager Joe Torre said. "He's still a quality hitter. We've got some people around him that are pretty good too. With our potential offense, I don't think I want to face Manny with men on base."
In fact, perhaps Ramirez's biggest impact is what Mattingly calls "stretching" the Dodgers' lineup; that is, giving opposing pitchers fewer options to make mistakes with other hitters such as Ethier, Kemp and Loney.
"It's like, OK, I'm going to pitch Matt really carefully, you've got Manny sitting back there," Mattingly said. "You don't want more guys on base, so [Kemp] is going to get better pitches to hit."
Not everyone believes Ramirez will make a huge difference. Ken Macha, the Milwaukee Brewers' manager, said that even though Ramirez obviously bolsters the Dodgers' offense, "pitching has more of an impact on the game than one position player."
Perhaps, but Kemp said "just having [Ramirez] in the lineup, it scares pitchers and it's a positive for us. I can't wait until he comes back."