Dodgers can now relax and play ball

LOS ANGELES -- The sparse crowd Wednesday at Dodger Stadium probably had more to do with the time of day and the time of year than anything else. It was a noon start, and with most area schools already in session and the Los Angeles Dodgers' season hanging by the thinnest of threads, there didn't figure to be much of a clamoring to get into the place, even though the official attendance was announced as a laughable 37,080.

It was hard to make a case that the vast sea of empty seats had anything to do with a certain dreadlocked outfielder not being there anymore. Even so, with Manny Ramirez having been shipped to the Chicago White Sox on a waiver claim two days earlier, the scene of general disinterest seemed to perfectly symbolize the rest of the Dodgers' season.

For whatever remains of their 2010 -- 28 regular-season games and an ever-dwindling hope of a playoff berth -- the Dodgers don't figure to generate much in the way of national attention. Oh, there will be manager Joe Torre's big announcement sometime toward the end of this month as to whether he wants to return in 2011. But beyond that, the fact that Manny is no longer around to be Manny means the Dodgers are free to simply be the Dodgers, and given the way this team has played lately, that isn't exactly a compelling proposition.

The first day of the rest of the Dodgers' season comes Friday, when they begin a three-game series with the San Francisco Giants. It is an opportunity to get back into contention, what with the Giants sitting in second place in both the National League West and the wild-card standings. But the Dodgers aren't really in the habit of taking advantage of opportunities, having dropped two of three to the wild-card-leading Philadelphia Phillies earlier this week and two of three to another team ahead of them in the standings, the Colorado Rockies, this past weekend in Denver.

"I still believe this ballclub has a six- or seven-game winning streak in it," Torre said. "We just have to do it right now, as opposed to later on when it doesn't matter anymore."

The only question is, can the Dodgers do it without Ramirez?

Sure, Ramirez was a pain in the derriere at times, what with his quirky personality, his refusal to speak to the media, his occasional apparent bouts with indifference, his lack of mobility in the outfield and his maddening inability to stay off the disabled list. But so far this season, the Dodgers are 37-29 when Ramirez plays for them, either as a starter or a pinch hitter, and they are 31-37 when he doesn't.

Even in a season in which he appeared to have little power left, Ramirez's presence seemed to make the rest of the lineup better because opposing teams still seemed to treat him like he was the old, scary Ramirez, the one who could routinely hit the ball into the next zip code. As a result, some of the other hitters around him in the lineup got better pitches.

For the most part, though, the Dodgers have suffered from a season-long lack of production from the middle of their batting order, and that has been especially pronounced whenever Ramirez isn't in the lineup -- and the harsh reality is that he won't be in the lineup again this season or any other season in the future.

Since Ramirez made his last start for the Dodgers on Aug. 25 at Milwaukee, Torre has filled out the middle of the order identically in seven consecutive games: Andre Ethier hitting third, Matt Kemp hitting fourth, James Loney hitting fifth and Casey Blake hitting sixth. In those seven games, the quartet has combined to hit .245 (26-for-106), with as many strikeouts as hits and a grand total of 16 RBIs.

If the Dodgers are to at least keep things interesting for the rest of the season, that has to change. Ethier, Kemp, Loney and Blake have to become run producers, even without Ramirez in the lineup to protect them. Perhaps more important, given the Dodgers' rather long odds of salvaging their season, is that all four of them will be back in 2011, with Ethier, Kemp and Loney expected to once again be mainstays in the everyday lineup. So if the Dodgers accomplish nothing else over these final 28 games, they need to establish that those three can provide power and production in a Ramirez-free lineup.

The Dodgers will play all but four of their remaining games against divisional opponents, and they have by far the best intradivision record in the NL West at 30-18. But that record means nothing at this point, not when the Dodgers are nine games behind first place and 7 1/2 back in the wild card. The schedule is an opportunity, but opportunity means nothing if you don't take advantage of it, and the Dodgers haven't taken advantage of any of the opportunities they have encountered since the All-Star break.

"We need to be more productive in the middle of our lineup," Torre said. "We have been getting some people on base. We have been playing hard. We just need to have a better result on a regular basis."

It will take a miracle to get the Dodgers into the playoffs now. But there is enough talent on this team to produce a miracle, especially if the starting pitching continues to be as good as it has been lately. The one thing the Dodgers won't have to deal with the rest of the way is a lot of national attention. With Ramirez out of sight and presumably out of mind, all they have to do at this point is relax and play baseball.

And see where it gets them.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.