Sunday, April 18, 2010
The making of Manny's homer
By Tony Jackson ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- To the naked eye, the latest Hollywood ending at Dodger Stadium seemed simple enough. Manny Ramirez's right calf still wasn't quite healed enough to allow him to play nine innings, so on an afternoon when the Dodgers were completely handcuffed by savvy San Francisco left-hander Barry Zito and at a point when they had gone 17 consecutive innings without scoring, Ramirez came off the bench to pinch hit and swatted a game-winning, two-run homer, giving the Dodgers a 2-1 victory over the Giants before 50,433.
Underneath the surface, though, there was much more that went into it, and there were many more heroes than just the dreadlocked eccentric who got to run to the top step of the dugout and doff his cap to a crowd that still adores him through thick and thin.
Manny Ramirez hits a two-run homer in the eighth inning that lifted the Dodgers over the Giants on Sunday.
First, there was the top of that eighth inning, when it took three relievers to prevent the Giants from stretching their 1-0 lead, the whole thing ending when Ramon Troncoso got Juan Uribe -- the same guy who had given the Giants that lead when he had homered off Clayton Kershaw in the seventh -- to ground to third with the bases loaded.
Then, there was the one-out, six-pitch walk that another pinch hitter, Garret Anderson, had coaxed from Zito, not only pushing Zito's pitch count past 100 but driving the former Cy Young Award winner from the game because Giants manager Bruce Bochy was going a batter at a time with Zito at that stage of the game.
Knowing full well that Ramirez was waiting to hit for Troncoso -- he had gotten a rousing ovation just for stepping out of the dugout and into the on-deck circle before Zito had even thrown the first pitch to Anderson -- Bochy brought in Sergio Romo to pitch to him, creating a righty-righty matchup. Ramirez never took the bat off his shoulder for three pitches, putting him in a 1-2 hole.
And then, Romo hung a slider, and that was that.
"Good hitters have an idea what they want to hit,'' Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "They have an idea what a pitcher is trying to do to them. That is probably the thing that separates inexperience from experience is going up there with an idea what a pitcher is probably going to do. It looked like a slider, and this guy throws a lot of sliders, so it wasn't a mystery. But Manny still had to have the patience to sit on it and wait for it.''
Indeed, it was a slider, a choice for which Romo made no apologies. It was the execution of the pitch he wished he could have a do-over on.
"You have to respect what [Ramirez] has done, but I'm not going to change my game,'' Romo said. "I attack hitters. I got beat today. I hung one. He was looking for it, obviously.''
Before Romo could throw that pitch, though, a lot of things had to happen. Before Ramirez could hit it just beyond the wall in left field, the stage had to be set. The fact a lot of things did happen and the stage was set is exactly why the Dodgers (6-6) came away with the win, why they took two of three from the Giants and why they now hit the road for the next nine games tied with San Diego and Colorado for second place in the National League West and trailing the first-place Giants by just two games.
548 -- career home runs for Manny Ramirez, placing him in a tie with Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt for 14th place on baseball's all-time list. Only two of Ramirez's home runs have come in a pinch-hitting role, including the two-run shot he hit off Romo in the eighth inning on Sunday and the grand slam he hit off Cincinnati's Nick Masset on July 22, 2009, on Manny Ramirez Bobblehead Night at Dodger Stadium.
Clayton Kershaw, a potential staff ace-in-waiting, waited until his third start of the season to turn in an ace-worthy performance. He went seven innings, striking out nine and holding the Giants scoreless until giving up a home run to Uribe on the eighth pitch of the at-bat in the seventh. Before Uribe took him deep, Kershaw had retired 10 consecutive batters, striking out five of them. Kershaw did issue four walks, including to two of the final three batters he faced, and he has now walked 15 in 17 innings this season. But his effort against the Giants could be a sign he has turned a corner.
Left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo needed all of six pitches to turn in another perfect inning for high Single-A Inland Empire against Modesto on Sunday. He struck out one batter in his second rehabilitation appearance. Kuo is expected to be activated from the 15-day disabled list for the first time this season sometime before Tuesday night's game in Cincinnati. The Dodgers will have to clear a roster spot, and it would seem at least somewhat likely that rookie reliever Jon Link, who was recalled from Triple-A Albuquerque on Sunday but didn't pitch against the Giants, will be sent back without having appeared in a game.
After Kershaw walked Eugenio Velez to start the eighth, Torre started playing chess.
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First, he brought in Jeff Weaver to face the right-handed-hitting Edgar Renteria, who sacrificed Velez to second. Renteria's bunt was extremely well-placed, and first baseman Ronnie Belliard had to scramble to get to it and scoop to second baseman Jamey Carroll covering first. Carroll appeared to pull his foot off the bag lunging for Belliard's throw, but first-base umpire Mark Wegner called Renteria out.
Then, after Weaver intentionally walked Pablo Sandoval, Torre brought in struggling lefty George Sherrill to face lefty-hitting Aubrey Huff. Apparently still fighting his mechanics, Sherrill started Huff off with three balls. But after taking a called strike, Huff fouled off a fastball, then popped up for the second out.
So finally, Torre brought in the right-handed Troncoso to pitch to Bengie Molina. Although the strategy failed because Troncoso hit Molina with a 1-1 curveball to load the bases, it eventually succeeded because Troncoso got Uribe to ground into a force at second, ending the threat and keeping the Giants within striking distance.
Lost in the shuffle
It isn't clear whether the fact that Anderson's one-out walk pushed Zito's pitch count past 100 and chased him from the game was a result of an at-bat by Clayton Kershaw two innings earlier. But it certainly couldn't have hurt the Dodgers' cause that Kershaw, leading off the sixth in what was still a scoreless game, worked Zito for 11 pitches before striking out. Kershaw fouled off six two-strike pitches in a single plate appearance that accounted for 10.7 percent of the 102 pitches Zito threw in the game.
Quote of the Day
"You still get excited about stuff like this. It doesn't happen all the time that you steal a lead from a team like that, so it's definitely exciting. It doesn't get old at all.'' -- Anderson, a 17-year, major-league veteran, on whether dramatic victories like this one by the Dodgers are as thrilling as they were when he was younger.
Torre and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt will cross their fingers, hold their breath and send Chad Billingsley back to the mound on Tuesday night at Cincinnati. Will it be the Billingsley who was a first-round draft pick in 2003 and was, for a long time, the Dodgers' top pitching prospect, or will it be the Billingsley who has struggled to reach his potential since arriving in the majors in 2006? Will it be the Billingsley who went 9-4 with a 3.38 ERA through the first half last year on the way to making his first All-Star team, or will it be the Billingsley who went 3-7 with a 5.20 the rest of the way? Will it be the Billingsley who turned in 5 1/3 solid innings in pitching the Dodgers to their first victory of the season on April 8 at Pittsburgh, or will it be the Billingsley who was torched for six earned runs on eight hits over 5 2/3 on Wednesday night against Arizona? He will be opposed by Reds right-hander Homer Bailey.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.