Ramirez could be key to Cubs' success

Ramirez could be key to Cubs' success

Last winter, Lou Piniella said the one thing the Cubs were missing was a left-handed bat in the middle of the lineup. So, they signed Milton Bradley in January.

Shortly after the All-Star break, when the Cubs were in Philadelphia and within a few games of St. Louis in the National League Central standings, Piniella said they were still in need of a left-handed bat.

Maybe that's not what the Cubs needed at all.

At the July 31 Trade Deadline, general manager Jim Hendry did add two lefties, but they were pitchers John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny. The Cardinals, meanwhile, plucked Matt Holliday, who has provided a huge lift, batting .600.

The Cubs made their move July 6. That's when they activated Aramis Ramirez from the disabled list. How much of a difference can one player make? When Ramirez missed two months after dislocating his left shoulder, the Cubs went 24-26 and averaged 3.68 runs per game. Since Ramirez returned, the offense had picked up and was averaging 5.27 runs per game. Most importantly, the Cubs are 15-9 since Ramirez's return.

Ramirez could be the missing piece.

"Why is it that when the closer is out of the team's bullpen, the bullpen struggles a little more?" Piniella said. "Why is it when your No. 1 starter, your ace, goes down, the starting staff struggles a little more? Why is it when your cleanup hitter and best RBI guy is not in the lineup, that the offense sputters a little bit? I don't have answers for that, but it's so. Maybe that's why these guys make the money they make.

"Since [Ramirez] has been back in the lineup, we've started to see the signs of finally starting to swing the bats more consistently," he said.

Which is why all of Wrigleyville cringed on Saturday night when Ramirez left the game after getting hit on the left arm by a pitch from Leo Nunez in the 10th. The Cubs can't afford to lose him. The third baseman is hitting over .300 since his return with five homers in 14 games since the All-Star break. He had four homers in 24 games before he was hurt. He was expected to only miss one game.

Does the Cubs' fate rest on Ramirez?

"It's not maybe physically one guy," Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot said. "I think a lot more goes into it. Emotionally, when you have that guy in there, it helps other guys and gives them confidence, knowing you've got somebody behind you who's capable of driving runs in. It takes pressure off everybody.

"He's been our best hitter, arguably, for the last four, five, six years," Theriot said. "Yeah, you want to have him in there. You can pencil in 30 homers and 100 RBIs."

This season has been much more complicated than the daily crossword puzzles Piniella tackles. Injuries to key players have challenged the 65-year-old manager to fill in the spaces with the right player. The Cubs have had the projected every day lineup on the field twice: Opening Day and July 6.

They began the 2009 campaign as one of two Major League teams without anyone on the disabled list, and now have placed 13 players on the DL 15 times. Both Reed Johnson and Aaron Miles have been sidelined twice. Johnson, Miles, starter Ted Lilly, and catcher Geovany Soto are currently out, but Soto should be back by the weekend. That will finally give ironman Koyie Hill a breather. He's caught all but six innings of every game since Soto was hurt.

The injuries have been anything but normal. Ryan Dempster broke his toe jumping over the dugout fence. Johnson fractured a bone in his foot with a foul ball. Soto strained his oblique in batting practice.

Piniella's boldest move of the season wasn't his shouting match with Bradley at U.S. Cellular Field. It came July 4 when he moved Alfonso Soriano to sixth. As the leadoff man this year, Soriano batted .228. In the sixth hole, he's hitting .351. Bingo.

There have been other nice surprises. Kosuke Fukudome is thriving in the No. 1 spot. Rookie Jake Fox may not be able to play one position well enough, but he's handled five so far, and was hitting better against right-handers than lefties. He's also neck and neck with Bradley in home runs and RBIs.

Derrek Lee has regained his power stroke, and on July 27, belted his 20th homer to match his entire 2008 total. Lee topped it Saturday night with a game-winning shot leading off the 10th against the Florida Marlins.

The Cubs' pitching has been solid, and they've gotten the biggest boost from rookie Randy Wells, a converted catcher who won five games in July. Lilly, the team's only All-Star, was expected back in mid-August.

Can the Cubs three-peat? At the 100-game mark, they were only four games off the pace from a year ago when they won 97 games and their second National League Central Division title. The Ramirez-fueled offense definitely picked up in July, and led the NL in home runs (36) and slugging percentage (.468). Cubs pitchers last month posted the fifth-best ERA in the league at 3.46.

"I like our team," Lee said. "I just don't think we've played the way we're capable of. You look around the locker room and we have guys who have a pretty good track records. If we can figure out a way to become consistent and play the way we're capable of, I like our chances."

Maybe the Cubs don't need a left-handed bat. Maybe Bradley isn't the key. Piniella has made the effort to work with the switch-hitter, who can get on base. He ranked third in the NL in July with a .457 OBP.

"It's a constant battle to find your swing, try to figure out how you hit .320 and now you have trouble just hitting the ball," Bradley said. "I'm too good to worry about it. I've got to just keep going."

Maybe all the Cubs need is Ramirez.

"He knows how to drive in runs, he's done it his whole career," Piniella said of the third baseman. "He's a good professional bat in the middle of your lineup. We've missed that for a long, long time here. Get him going and it really helps out."

THE ROAD AHEAD

Home games remaining: 29 (including makeup game Sept. 3 vs. White Sox)

Road games remaining: 30

Games vs. teams over .500: 18

Key series: vs. Dodgers, Aug. 20-23; vs. Cardinals, Sept. 18-20; vs. Brewers, Sept. 21-23.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.