What began as a shaky second half, with two losses to the Houston Astros, has shifted paths and provided fans of the Blue Crew with the most memorable moment of the season thus far.
Manny Ramirez notched a pinch-hit, go-ahead grand slam in the sixth inning last night to cap-off a three-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds. Ramirez hit the slam with the game tied at 2-2 and laced a frozen rope into the left field seats.
There will be plenty more to come on that remarkable moment later.
They are on a five-game winning streak and can enjoy their day off bolstered by their recent sweep of the Reds.
Right now I want to focus on the first four-game tilt of the second half.
For the series listed below, click on the “W” or “L” in the headline to read the game recap (if available).
In the opener, the Dodgers couldn’t muster a run against southpaw Wandy Rodriguez as they fell 3-0.
The offense fell flat in their efforts to help out starter Randy Wolf as they went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and Manny Ramirez’s return to Mannywood became not-so-Hollywoodesque. Wolf turned in a valiant performance with his six-inning, three-run effort.
The following night saw the hometown-nine fall again but this time 8-1. They ran into a tough pitcher as veteran Roy Oswalt dazzled with incredible control and pitch placement.
Chad Billingsley gave up four first inning runs and suffered his quickest exit from a game this season, departing after just 1.1 IP. In that awful first frame, Chad gave up the four runs in a span of six consecutive two-out hits. The outing spurred talk that Billingsley was injured, but there was no truth to that rumor.
Orlando Hudson scored the only run, but it came with some help from the Astros when right-fielder Hunter Pence lost a ball in the brilliant Los Angeles sunset. Pence’s misplay of the high fly allowed Hudson to come across on a Russell Martin RBI groundout.
Twenty-one-year-old Clayton Kershaw shut down the Astros in game three and continued his recent dominance against anyone who dare try to step up to the plate.
In his past seven starts, Kershaw has allowed just three earned runs in 42.2 IP (0.63 ERA) and has lowered his ERA on the season to 2.95.
The native-Texan shut out Cecil Cooper’s Houston squad with seven innings of hard-nosed pitching, and he walked just one hitter while fanning five. It was his strongest outing of the year, and he pitched through the seventh inning for the first time this season. That was a big step for the youngster as he proved to himself that he has more fuel in the tank than perhaps he initially thought.
Kershaw never allowed a runner to reach second base on the night.
The team gave Joe Torre a nice gift for his 69th birthday with the help of a three-run sixth inning, which was highlighted by a wild Mike Hampton error that cost his team an additional run.
Hampton, frustrated after a Mark Loretta RBI single, slammed the ball towards his glove out of frustration. The only problem was that the veteran completely missed the glove, allowing the ball to roll away and giving Matt Kemp an easy chance to score from third. That play chased Hampton from the game.
The final game of the series saw the Dodgers edge out the Astros 4-3 on Sunday afternoon.
Kemp delivered the big blow to complete the comeback victory. He launched a two-out eighth inning solo home run in the left field pavilion to give the Dodgers the lead for good. Kemp was 3-for-3 on the night and Andre Ethier contributed a 3-for-4 effort.
The bullpen pitched four scoreless, no-hit innings as Ramon Troncoso picked up his fourth win of the season, and Jonathan Broxton earned his 22nd save of the season to salvage a split in the four-game set.
The Reds came into town losers of the past nine contests at Dodger Stadium. They left town much worse: losers of 12 straight, after a three-game sweep.
Jason Schmidt stole the headlines on Monday night with his first start since ’07 resulting in his first win since the first time he took the mound in a Dodger uniform, during the opening series in Milwaukee.
Schmidt gave up four consecutive hits to begin the game and three runs came across, but he settled down and gutted out a five-inning performance. Topping out at 87 MPH, Schmidt was a shell of his old power-pitching self but worked a biting breaking ball to keep the Reds hitters just off-balance enough to be effective.
Manny and Ethier went deep and Russell Martin added a 3-for-3 night as the offense bailed out Schmidt quickly. They came back in the bottom of the first, down 3-0, and ran off four runs of their own to gain the lead.
Ramirez’s second inning home run gave the Dodgers a 6-3 lead and pushed him past Mickey Mantle for sole possession of 15th on the all-time home run list (537).
The Reds threatened after scoring two runs in the eighth but Jonathan Broxton once again shut the door in the ninth for save No. 23, which made him a perfect 12-for-12 in save situations at Dodgers Stadium.
The next night, an offensive explosion outshined an excellent outing from Wolf. Wearing No. 43 for the third time this season he went 7.1 innings and allowed just two runs of four hits.
Rafael Furcal went 3-for-5 with a home run, a double, and four RBI, and James Loney went 3-for-4 with two RBI to lead the offense to the 12-3 victory.
This all brings us to the dramatics at Dodger Stadium in the final game against the Reds.
Locked in a 2-2 tie, Ramirez came to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth. The crowd went into hysteria the moment Manny stepped out of the dugout. After all, it was his Bobble Head night at the stadium. All 56,000 fans were ready to see something magical, but Manny had been limited to pinch-hitting duties for a reason.
The night before he was hit on the hand with a pitch and had to exit the game. Ramirez received X-rays that night, but due to bruising in his left hand he was withheld from the starting lineup.
Facing Nick Masset, whom Dusty Baker just called on from the bullpen, Masset tried to sneak a 96 mph fastball past Manny on the inside half of the plate. Without taking any batting practice, Ramirez jumped all over the offering and hit a laser beam into the left field seats, directly above the “Mannywood” sign on the outfield wall.
Dodger Stadium erupted into a state of bedlam for a few minutes to celebrate the go-ahead blast, which gave the Dodgers all they needed to hold on for a 6-2 win.
The Reds really never had a chance to score again as the grand slam took the wind out of their sails and made them realize that despite their best efforts, they were not going to escape the Southland with a victory.
The Road Ahead
Los Angeles is off to its best record, at 61-34, through 95-games since 1974 (63-32). That team went on to win 102 games but lost the World Series to the Oakland Athletics in five games.
Offensively, things are outstanding. As stated before, things were sluggish coming off the All-Star break, but they turned on the burners in a hurry. Kemp is still playing at an incredibly high level, Hudson finally busted out of a long slump, Martin is swinging with more consistency, and Manny is just being Manny.
As great as those who bleed Dodger Blue feel right now, there is still much work to be done.
The pitching staff has a lot of questions left unanswered. While the Jason Schmidt story was wonderful, he still has to prove that he can come back for his next start and provide quality work once again. If he can do this it will take pressure off GM Ned Colletti before the trading deadline.
Schmidt, if he can shoulder the load as the fifth starter, could alleviate the need to find another starting pitcher. Colletti could then focus his move toward acquiring a late-inning reliever (preferably left-handed) to strengthen the bullpen.
However, Hong Chi-Kuo seems to be making enormous strides in his rehab and will most likely be activated at the end of the month. Last year’s Relief Pitcher of the Year (awarded by MLB.com) will potentially be a huge force on the mound for the Boys in Blue.
I still think Colletti needs to be proactive and bring one more arm into the mix, but Kuo is going to be a huge boost for this club.
As for last night—yes, this was just another game in July, but Manny’s pinch-hit grand slam, the first long ball of his career coming off the bench, might possibly be the shot of momentum this team has been desperately searching for.
Los Angeles has been merely treading water in the NL West for the past month and a half and now they have solidified a nine-game cushion on the second place Colorado Rockies.
Before the series with the Reds, the last time they held such a large lead was back on Jun. 18. They have a chance to keep it going against the Florida Marlins this weekend for three more home games.
It is imperative that the club keeps this momentum through the weekend series because they face a daunting task of four games at Busch Stadium next week against Albert Pujols and the NL Central leading Cardinals.
Los Angeles is 10-7 against the Central division this season and they can’t afford to take a step back when they hit the road for the first time in the second half.
PJ Ross is a Featured Columnist for the Los Angeles Dodgers