MILWAUKEE — By this time last year, Aramis Ramirez was already on the disabled list. Little did anyone know just how much the knee sprain he aggravated sliding into second base in the fourth game of the season would impact the Brewers.
Ramirez playing as a shell of himself and Ryan Braun missing a good portion of the season took the middle of Milwaukee’s order out of the equation. Limited to just 92 games, Ramirez hit .283 with 12 home runs and 49 RBI in 2013.
What a healthy Ramirez can bring to the Brewers has been on display early on in 2014, as the veteran third baseman is hitting .440 with six RBI in the first six games of the season. Ramirez didn’t drive in his sixth run of 2013 until May 11.
"I feel pretty good," Ramirez said. "I worked hard this offseason, I worked hard in spring training to get my knee back to 100 percent and right now I feel pretty good.
"You take three or four (in the batting order) out of any major-league team and it is going to hurt. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care if you have the best lineup in baseball."
While his production at the plate has provided enough evidence to show the knee is in a much better place than it was last year, a diving stop and subsequent throw from his knees to rob Andrelton Simmons of a base hit in the opening series might have been the most convincing sign.
"He can hit," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He gets people on base and he understands what to do. I was really happy with him making a couple of dives on the field. When he’s feeling that way, he’s really good — not just offensively, but he really helps us defensively."
Braun and Ramirez only played together in 30 games in 2013, as the Brewers naturally struggled to replace the production usually provided by the duo. In the 82 games Ramirez didn’t play third base last season, his replacements hit .218 with just nine home runs and 34 RBI.
The Brewers were hit in the cleanup spot as well, as they got a .225 batting average and 11 home runs and 38 RBI when Ramirez was out of the lineup.
"We lost 600-some at-bats from Aramis and Braun last year," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "That’s from the three and four hitters. That’s not losing 600-some at-bats from your seven and eight hitters. Our star players have to perform. And they know that. They know if they have good years we have a better chance of competing."
That’s why Ramirez’s quick start to the season has been encouraging because of how badly the Brewers need him to produce like his usual self. Ramirez is a notorious slow starter for his standards, as he entered this season a career .258 hitter in April.
Having a productive Ramirez in the lineup will be even more vital to Milwaukee if Braun continues to battle the thumb injury that has nagged him for almost a full year.
"It’s just going to add that much more offense to our lineup," Brewers right-hander Yovani Gallardo said. "We’re a good ballclub all around. Having him at third is awesome. At 100 percent, he’s going to be able to get to those ground balls he wasn’t able to get last year."
Ramirez displayed confidence in his ability to return to form when he reported to spring training, but nobody knew how he’d bounce back from the worst statistical year of his career at 35 years old.
Though it’s been a small sample size, the knee injury seems to have been the only reason for the dip in Ramirez’s numbers in 2013.
"It’s just hard to play when you’re not healthy," Ramirez said. "You can see that on guys like (Albert) Pujols. He hit .260. That’s not Pujols. It doesn’t matter where you play, if you’re not healthy, you’re not going to play the way you’re supposed to. That’s the bottom line."
Not only does Ramirez provide the Brewers with a big bat in the middle of the lineup, but also his presence allows guys like Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy to hit elsewhere in the order. That gives Milwaukee a much deeper lineup.
"He’s a big RBI producer, so when that guy gets going, he’s a big help," Lucroy said. "He’s obviously one of our biggest weapons, so hopefully he can keep it going."
Brewers closer Francisco Rodriguez described Ramirez’s quick start to the season and the fact he appears healthy as "a sigh of relief."
"You know all the incidents we went through last year," Rodriguez said. "A lot of our key players weren’t healthy at all. The kids that came up from Triple-A did a tremendous job. Now this year is a different year. We are going to put that behind us.
"Our expectations are really high because we know what we’re capable of doing. We have a great lineup and the key — if the big boys stay healthy, it’s going to be a fun year for us."