The Los Angeles Dodgers have faced questions about their pitching staff all season long.
They were dealt an early-season injury to opening day starter Hiroki Kuroda (followed by a much scarier late-season trip to the DL).
All-Star Chad Billingsley strained his hamstring and missed a key start on the road against the rival San Francisco Giants.
One-time fifth starter Eric Milton is out for the season with a back injury.
And Jason Schmidt...well, he was just Jason Schmidt.
That laundry list continues to add up and balloons to a comical number of injuries when you look towards the bullpen.
Recently traded Claudio Vargas spent April through June on the fritz with tendinitis in his elbow.
Cory Wade has made two separate trips to the DL, once for bursitis and two months later for a strain in the same shoulder.
Left-handed specialist Will Ohman (who probably is better off having been injured considering his ineffectiveness) is still pitching in Triple-A after injuring his left shoulder.
Jonathan Broxton has battled a bad toe for nearly two months.
Ronald Belisario went on the DL with a sore elbow (an elbow which has been surgically reconstructed—twice).
Hong-Chih Kuo is pitching on an arm so structurally unstable that trainer Stan Conte labels his health as being on "a pitch-to-pitch basis," because his arm is so likely to snap on any given pitch.
However, injuries and all, the entire staff has been outstanding as the dog days of August wear on in an effort to lift the Blue Crew out of a recent funk.
In eight consecutive games, Dodgers pitchers have allowed three runs or fewer, posting a 2.19 ERA (17 ER/70 IP).
The bullpen, despite a ninth-inning loss by Broxton last week against St. Louis, has not given up a run in the past 10.2 innings. Take away that lone unearned run, and the consecutive scoreless streak bumps up to 18 innings.
Remember, the Dodgers have turned to unusual arms to fill the gaps in their rotation while maintaining an excellent ERA.
Knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, who spent the entire season in the minors, has made two starts in the past 10 days.
Jeff Weaver has even filled the void with two spot starts, the highest billed one coming in a showdown with Cy Young candidate Tim Lincecum.
Yet somehow, the team has gone just 5-3 in those eight well-pitched games.
Consider this: The last time the Dodgers went eight games in a row and gave up three runs or fewer was Aug. 2-11, 2006. They did it 10 straight games—and capitalized on the performances by going 9-1 in that stretch.
You can even track the trend back 13 games, a span in which the staff has given up four runs or fewer in all contests and posted a 2.48 ERA (32 ER/116.2 IP), but the team is just 7-6 over that time.
Additionally, since Aug. 10, only the Philadelphia Phillies have a lower team ERA (2.43, 32 ER/118.1 IP) than the Dodgers.
One more thing: The Dodgers are tied with San Francisco for the major league lead in team ERA (3.53).
Not bad for a club that, out of desperation, signed Vicente Padilla to a minor league contract last week.
So what's holding this team back recently?
Well, to put it lightly, the offense can’t hit the broad side of a barn.
Coming from a team that leads the National League in batting average (.274) and on-base percentage (.349), this was not a problem Joe Torre anticipated.
Sure, we could dismiss the offensive funk by saying that all teams go through stretches like this and will bounce back, which Torre did in the L.A. Times.
"I think you just go through that little bit of a dip," Torre said. "I don't think they're tired. I think they may be trying a little too hard...this is just the baseball season."
But will they be able to right the ship before the division lead has dwindled away?
The thing that makes me question Torre’s statement is that the problems don't stem from a lack of hits in general—they come from a lack of clutch hits.
The Dodgers lost a game in late July against the Cardinals, 10-0, but outhit the Red Birds! The only way to accomplish that not-so-stellar feat is to completely fall apart with runners on base and men in scoring position.
Ultimately, the blame has to rest squarely on the shoulders of Manny Ramirez.
Manny has struggled severely for the past month and has not contributed nearly to the level he established last September.
No one expected him to be that dangerous again—that was a unique sort of outburst—but the level to which he has regressed is downright depressing.
The frustration of the fans with Manny not playing at a high level manifested in boos being rained down on the outfielder at Dodgers Stadium on Sunday afternoon, when he badly misplayed a triple in the left field corner that led to the game-winning runs.
As an explanation for his slump, lots of fans and analysts are quick to use the performance-enhancing drug excuse, but that would be an incorrect assumption.
First of all, how do we know what that guy has in his body?
It is well documented that he loads up with all sorts of vitamins and supplements in the locker room before each game, and only God (or possibly Yuri Sucart) knows what he’s consuming.
Secondly, Ramirez's struggles can be traced squarely back to the basics of baseball—pitch selection.
I have harped on this for the past few weeks, as Manny has been lacking a patient eye on pitches in all parts of the zone, but mainly on those around the outside part of the plate.
He has made a career of driving home runs and extra base hits to center and right field, and now he can’t seem to even drive a single ball into right.
Andre Ethier has been more than pulling his own weight, partly because he has the protection of Ramirez in the order, but mostly because of his great pitch selection.
Ethier has slugged a career-high 25 home runs and 83 RBI.
Since moving in front of Manny in the order on July 31, take a look at Ethier's numbers hitting behind (July 3-30) and in front (July 31-Aug. 23) of Manny, and it becomes clear that Ramirez is not doing his job to drive Ethier home.
Despite raising his OBP .96 points, Ethier has scored two fewer runs since moving in front of Manny, and that just doesn't add up. It provides proof that Ramirez needs to step his run-producing game up if the Dodgers want to make a serious run at a National League pennant.
In those first 23 games Ethier played once Manny was back from suspension, Ramirez (who played in 22 of them) drove in 17 runs.
In the past 23 games—eight RBI.
Not to mention 22 strikeouts and only 10 walks for Manny in that stretch.
That seems like a joke when, as I said, you think of Manny's production down the stretch last season.
In 2008, Manny drove in 21 runs in 21 games from Aug. 1-23, a far cry from what he has done in '09.
The key stat from '08 that has changed, and in my opinion has altered Manny's effectiveness at the plate, is his strikeout to walk ratio.
He had 14 strikeouts and 13 walks in this stretch of '08, as opposed to the previously stated 22 K and 10 BB in '09.
Ramirez simply is not seeing the ball well and needs to focus much harder at the plate to turn things around. His lack of concentration (or whatever it may be) has caused him to pull of a lot of pitches and hit high (but routine) fly balls.
Right now, Manny needs to take a page out of Ethier's book and look to drive the ball to the opposite field.
If you watch Ethier, he lets the ball get deep in the zone so he can drive it the other way.
Manny, on the other hand, is making contact too far out in front of the plate. This causes him to make contact the ball on an up swing because he is reaching for the pitch, and the consequence is more pop-ups and fewer line drives.
This can best be seen in his average against breaking balls, which sits at a pedestrian .265 (for both curves and sliders) in '09.
The average against breaking balls is important because it is an indicator of how well the batter can keep his hands behind the ball and hang with the speed difference from the straight stuff.
For comparison, he is hitting fastballs at a .336 clip this season.
To bring everything full circle, Ethier is hitting .301 on curveballs this season and .294 on sliders—much better and consistent numbers than Ramirez and a testament to his approach at the plate.
Ramirez, hitting just .200 in his past seven games, needs to simply take his time and let the ball get deeper in the zone before he clears his hips.
This minor adjustment will generate more power for the slugger and give him a much better opportunity to drive the ball to the opposite field.
However small the adjustment may be, Manny needs to recognize and correct it quickly.
Los Angeles locks up for three games with second-place Colorado today through Thursday, and no matter how well the pitching staff throws, the pressure is on the offense—more specifically Manny—to put runs on the board.
PJ Ross is a Featured Columnist for the Los Angeles Dodgers.