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Hanley, Dodgers are looking better than ever

Shortstop's talent, leadership instrumental in the club's run to NLCS @TracyRingolsby

LOS ANGELES -- There was never a doubt that Hanley Ramirez had the physical ability to be an impact player.

The question was whether Ramirez would allow the ability to develop.

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He has.

Ramirez is on baseball's big stage for the first time in his career, and the shortstop is playing a starring role for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He, more than any other player, was the catalyst to the Dodgers' midseason rally from last place in the National League West to not just winning the division title, but clinching first place sooner than any of the five other division champs.

And Ramirez led the charge in knocking off Atlanta in four games in the NL Division Series, helping the Dodgers to advance to the NL Championship Series, which begins Friday against the winner of Wednesday night's Game 5 between Pittsburgh and St. Louis in the other NLDS.

Not that any of it is a surprise to Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, after all, gave the talented Ramirez a wakeup call, back in 2010, when Gonzalez was managing the Marlins. Ramirez had won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2006. He won the NL batting title in '09. Ramirez earned his third All-Star selection in '10. And he was only 26.

Ramirez was good, real good. And he not only knew it, but he showed it, which led to a showdown between Gonzalez and his star player. In May 2010, when Ramirez loafed after a ball, Gonzalez stepped up, pulling Ramirez out of the game, and didn't put him back in the lineup until he apologized to his teammates.

Gonzalez was the father who disciplines his child and utters, "This hurts me more than it hurts you."

"It wasn't personal," Gonzalez said.

It was professional.

Initially, Ramirez didn't take it well. At one point, he proclaimed that Gonzalez, "Doesn't understand. He never played in the big leagues."

Gonzalez responded, "He's right. But I know how to play the game."

It was Gonzalez's effort to push Ramirez to not just be good. He had the ability to be better than that.

"It was something that as a head coach or a manager in any sport, you've got to worry about the 24 other guys, and you've got to make decisions," Gonzalez said. "When you feel you did the right thing at the right time, maybe that helped him grow up a bit."

Ramirez certainly made himself known in the NLDS. In four games, Ramirez tied a Dodgers record with six extra-base hits -- four doubles, a triple and a home run -- among his eight base hits in 16 at-bats.

"I see a different Hanley, a more mature guy," Gonzalez said. "I've always seen a real, real good baseball player. He's a guy that's got a bright future in the game. I haven't been with him for a while, going on four years, but when I had him in Florida, on any given day, he might have been the best player on the field, and I think he's still the same guy that way."

Gonzalez paused and smiled.

"At any given time, he tilts the field, defensive, running bases, offensively, hitting," Gonzalez said. "He's a special guy."

And that's why Gonzalez took his strong stand against his team's best player. It was a decision that played more than a little part in the Marlins dismissing Gonzalez a month later.

But things worked out. Gonzalez wound up replacing Bobby Cox as Braves manager in 2011, a job that had long been speculated would be his for the taking once Cox retired, but which the Marlins could have kept him from being able to get had he not been dismissed.

And Ramirez has become the impact player, just like Gonzalez said back in May 2010.

"After this is all said and done," Gonzalez said back then, "10 to 15 years down the road, we will sit down and say, 'What a privilege to get a chance to manage this type of ballplayer.'"

Even with the emotional wakeup call, the emergence to an elite player has been a challenge for Ramirez. He was limited to only 92 games in 2011, which ended with left shoulder surgery. Ramirez struggled to regain his offensive powers in 2012, and was eventually dealt to the Dodgers.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Assorted injuries this year limited Ramirez to 86 games, but they were an impactful 86 games. He led the Dodgers with a .345 average, ranking second on the team with 20 home runs and 57 RBIs behind Adrian Gonzalez, who had 22 home runs and 100 RBIs, and Ramirez was at his best when the Dodgers needed him. It was on June 22 that the club took off and it was Ramirez leading the charge.

"It was tough," Ramirez said of the 2011-12 seasons. "I don't want to remember those moments. I think, mentally, it was really tough for me. But when I got here everything changed. From the first day, Donnie [Mattingly, manager], I remember when I walked into his office and he told me, 'Just be you. We've got 24 other guys out there that come here every day and play hard and have fun. I want you to be the same.'"

Ramirez has been. He played in 69 of the Dodgers' final 89 games, hitting .340 with a .440 on-base percentage and 18 home runs.

And he never forgot the lesson Gonzalez taught him.

"[After that], there was more respect for each other," Ramirez said. "It was great. He was trying to help me be better."

It worked.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

Los Angeles Dodgers, Hanley Ramirez