Marlins rallying around struggling star

BY Ken Rosenthal • May 18, 2011

Upset No. 1: The Florida Marlins own the second-best record in the National League despite shortstop Hanley Ramirez batting .204.

Upset No. 2: Ramirez’s manager and teammates offer nothing but praise for his effort and character during his season-long struggles.

“I really believe when he gets out of this slump he will be a better player,” Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez said.

“He is learning to be mentally tougher. His approach to the game has been different. He’s not producing. And he has the respect of everyone in that clubhouse.”

It’s true, judging from a random sampling of several Marlins on Tuesday — the one-year anniversary of Ramirez kicking a grounder, loafing after it, then ripping the team’s former manager, Fredi Gonzalez, for benching him.

Ramirez, 27, is now in the middle of a different kind of crisis — a performance crisis. But he remains in terrific spirits, even as his season appears to be reaching a nadir.

After 40 games, Ramirez’s OPS is .577, a far cry from his .905 mark entering the season. His .153 batting average and .186 slugging percentage against right-handers are the lowest in the majors among qualifying hitters.

On Monday, Rodriguez moved Ramirez out of the No. 3 spot, batting him second for the first time since 2006. And in the ninth inning, with the score tied, a runner on second and two outs, the Mets showed the ultimate disrespect, intentionally walking Chris Coghlan to face Ramirez, who proceeded to ground into a fielder’s choice.

“I would have pitched to myself, too,” Ramirez said.

Not to worry: The Marlins won, 2-1, in 11 innings on the second career hit by — drum roll, please — reliever Burke Badenhop.

Ramirez, the 2009 NL batting champion, finished 0-for-6. But he was even self-deprecating when talking about Badenhop.

“I asked him after the game. I want to know his approach,” Ramirez said, joking. “(He said), ‘I wasn’t thinking. Just see it, hit it.’ That’s what I’m going to do tonight.’”

Alas, Tuesday night’s game was postponed, but Ramirez will get a chance to break his 0-for-16 slump Wednesday when the Marlins begin a five-game homestand against the Cubs.

It’s difficult to say which is the odder development — the Marlins sitting at 24-16 with Ramirez hitting like Yuniesky Betancourt, or the players saying that Ramirez’s awful offensive start is actually uniting the club.

“It’s a weird thing. I think it’s a blessing in disguise,” catcher John Buck said. “Every single person in the game has been challenged, failed, learned how to fail. He’s one of those players who almost makes the game look so easy. For him to struggle and be a great teammate, it’s huge.”

Buck, who signed a three-year, free-agent contract with the Marlins last offseason, said he heard the same thing as most everyone else before joining the club:

Ramirez’s personality was a problem.

“Being on the outside looking in, if there was a downfall to this team, that was it,” Buck said. “But it’s probably the biggest positive of the team, the strength of the team. It’s been a great surprise.”

Infielder Wes Helms, a Marlin for five of the past six seasons, says the difference in Ramirez is that he is staying positive rather than sulking during his slump.

“He’s definitely better. He’s definitely matured,” Helms said. “I noticed it in spring, but more once the season started, especially when he started struggling. That’s when I noticed it most — a change for the better.

“Everyone can act good when they’re going good. The test of a man is when you struggle, how you handle it. He’s definitely done better in that aspect.”

Some around the Marlins question whether Ramirez will revert to the old, difficult Hanley once he starts hitting again. But others say that Rodriguez, the early favorite for NL Manager of the Year, will not allow that to happen.

Rodriguez is proactive with Ramirez, talking with him daily, trying to fend off any problems. The manager, in his first full season, said he doesn’t need to speak as much with the team’s younger players — he managed most of them at Triple A. He got to know Ramirez, then, too, chatting with him during spring training.

“He felt, even before I was here, that I was somebody he could talk to without being defensive,” Rodriguez said.

The leadership dynamic of the Marlins is changing as players such as left fielder Logan Morrison and first baseman Gaby Sanchez start to emerge. But when a superstar such as Ramirez sets a positive example, beating out double-play balls, legging out infield hits, it makes everything a lot easier.

Of course, some extra-base hits from Ramirez would be helpful, too.

“I feel good. I feel good,” Ramirez said. “I couldn’t be hitting worse right now. And we’re only (a half-game) behind the Phillies. I don’t want the team thinking about me when we’re doing (well).

“They know I try hard, put my work in every day to improve. We’ve still got a long way to go. I’m just missing. I’m just missing a little bit. Everything is going to turn around sooner or later.

“Hanley is going to be back.”

He said that with a smile, seemingly aware of how he sounded referring to himself in the third person. Ramirez truly believes, however, that he is going to hit.

“What’s been impressive to me is the confidence he still has,” said third baseman Greg Dobbs, who joined the Marlins this season. “The confidence doesn’t go away. He’s confident at the end of the season he’ll be at .300, have his usual amount of home runs and RBIs.”

Ramirez, in fact, interrupted a question when a reporter mentioned his offensive “problems.”

“I’m a .300 hitter,” he said. “Everyone knows when I get hot, I get hot.”

True enough. And when it happens, it will be the one thing about the Marlins’ season that isn’t a surprise.



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