Heart of order fails Dodgers

MILWAUKEE -- As the Los Angeles Dodgers milled about in a somber clubhouse after Sunday's loss to the Cincinnati Reds, knowing that a cross-country flight awaited them Monday and another six-game trip loomed this week, the elephant in the room was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

They had just broken even on a homestand in which they really needed to win five of six, and the six weeks remaining on the regular-season schedule seemed to hold little promise for a team that had seemed on the verge of a long run of greatness as recently as last fall.

Yes, in all likelihood, the Dodgers are done. Barring a comeback for the ages, the best they probably can hope for from here on out is to play spoilers to other teams, contending teams.

At one corner of the clubhouse, Manny Ramirez dressed and left without speaking to reporters, just as he had for every previous game this season -- or at least the games he actually had attended. If this season ends the way it appears it will for the Dodgers, Ramirez's three disabled-list stints that rendered him unavailable for a total of 58 games will go down as one of the primary culprits, as will his lack of power in the games in which he did play.

But to put this season entirely on Ramirez would be wholly inaccurate, not to mention completely unfair. These are the same Dodgers, after all, who went 29-21 while Ramirez was serving a 50-game suspension last year, actually adding half a game to their division lead in the process and putting themselves in prime position for a playoff run. So this team is fully capable of winning without Ramirez -- something that should provide hope for 2011, when Ramirez will be a distant memory.

The question, then, is why the Dodgers haven't.

Why have they gone 26-34 this year in games in which Ramirez was on the DL? Why have they scored two runs or fewer in 27 of those 60 games (45 percent)?

Well, one easy target would be the two extended absences of Rafael Furcal. But a deeper look reveals that while the Dodgers clearly miss Furcal at the top of their lineup when he isn't there, they really haven't missed him that much in an overall sense.

During Furcal's first DL stint, because of a strained left hamstring that kept him out for most of May, the Dodgers went 17-8, appearing to turn their season around after a slow start. And in those 25 games, they scored two runs or fewer just five times.

Moreover, although the Dodgers enter Tuesday night's game against the Milwaukee Brewers having gone 9-10 in Furcal's current DL stint because of a lower-back strain, scoring two runs or fewer in nine of those 19 games, they have still received decent production at the top of the order from newcomers Scott Podsednik, who at one point had a 12-game hitting streak, and Ryan Theriot, who is hitting .288 with a .365 on-base percentage since being traded to the Dodgers.

You could point to the bottom of the order, but the bottom of the order isn't really expected to be all that productive. After all, that's why the pitcher hits there.

So that leaves us with the heart of the Dodgers' lineup -- which when Ramirez isn't playing consists of, in no particular order, first baseman James Loney, third baseman Casey Blake, center fielder Matt Kemp and right fielder Andre Ethier. And therein would appear to lie the source of the Dodgers' offensive ineptitude.

In the Dodgers' 37 games since the All-Star break, Ramirez spent 33 of them on the DL, spent another one (Sunday) on the bench and left another one in the first inning. He also left Saturday night's game, when he returned from the DL, after five innings because the Dodgers had a big lead and manager Joe Torre opted for better defense. That means Ramirez has played one full game among those 37, on July 15 at St. Louis when he went 0-for-3.

In those 37 games, the quartet of Loney, Blake, Kemp and Ethier is hitting a collective .226, with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs. The individual averages of those players during those games ranges from Loney's .205 to Ethier's .240.

Are those players suffering from Ramirez's absence? Well, clearly, they are. His mere presence in the lineup means opposing teams tend to attack the Dodgers differently, leading to more pitches to hit for whomever is hitting ahead of Ramirez and more RBI opportunities for whomever is hitting behind him. But to blame Ramirez's absence entirely for those players' lack of production? That's a little too easy.

Compare those numbers to a 50-game stretch last season from May 7 to July 1 -- the period when Ramirez was serving his suspension -- when Loney, Blake, Kemp and Ethier hit a combined .285 with 31 homers and 111 RBIs. Although Ethier hit just .222 over that stretch, he led the group with nine home runs. The other three were hitting .319 (Blake), .317 (Kemp) and .280 (Loney).

It all seems to suggest that the inability of the Dodgers' core hitters to overcome the loss of Ramirez -- a challenge they rose to last year -- is one of the biggest reasons for the Dodgers' second-half collapse.

Of course, the bullpen, which has a collective ERA of 4.22 and 14 blown saves, including a handful of epic ones, bears a big part of the blame, as well. But the fact the starting rotation has a 45-47 record to show for a solid 3.88 ERA is all about a lack of run support. And as the aforementioned numbers seem to bear out, that lack of run support is all about a lack of production in the middle of the lineup, especially in the second half.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.