Sports

Nick Cafardo | On Baseball

Improved attitude? Check. Better effort? Check. Now Hanley Ramirez needs to hit

Apr 22, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Boston Red Sox first baseman Hanley Ramirez (13) drives in a run with a sacrifice fly during the first inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports
All that’s missing from Hanley Ramirez’s game in 2016 is offense: he’s hitting .277 with 1 homer and 8 RBIs.

HOUSTON — You’d like the hitter who hit 10 homers and knocked in 22 runs last April, but you don’t want the left fielder who everyone was down on. You want the Hanley Ramirez who has matured before our eyes, who now talks about team and winning championships, and not the one who thinks only about himself.

We’ve seen it before our eyes from spring training on. You see a player who runs hard first to third, who tries to steal a base, who has taken playing first base very seriously, who is now loved, by his teammates. You see someone focused on trying to win.

He won’t say it, but it’s obvious that Ramirez didn’t care for all the criticism he received as a young player for being selfish and thinking about his batting average at a time when he was indeed one of the top players in baseball.

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“I’ll be honest with you: I don’t care about myself. I only care about the team,” said Ramirez, who is in his 11th full season and still only 32. “We’ve had a couple of tough losses. That’s what I think about. I think it was last year when I was sitting at my house watching the Kansas City Royals. They don’t have a lot of guys with a lot of home runs or RBIs but when they need that guy to come through in that big situation, they’ve got that. That’s the way to win championships. Listening to Papi talk about 2013: They didn’t have a lot of big guys with big numbers, but everything was clicking.

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“That’s all I care about right now. I’ve had situations where I’ve hit a hard line drive to second base in a situation I remember. I want to come through in those situations,” Ramirez said.

“I care about helping our team with a big hit at the right time. I care about driving in runs when I have the chance to help the team get ahead and stay ahead. I care about winning a championship. That’s what I think about it,” Ramirez said.

After going 2 for 3 against the Houston Astros on Friday night, he’s hitting .277 with one home run and eight RBIs and a .690 OPS. He has a career .859 OPS and a 162-game average of .296 with 25 homers and 86 RBIs. He did most of that accumulation as a shortstop.

Last season, Ramirez was hitting .263 with five homers and 12 RBI after 15 games with an .854 OPS. If getting the big hit is important, Ramirez needed to step it up. This season with runners in scoring position he’s hitting .200 (4 for 20) with a .561 OPS and .111 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

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“When you get older as a player you begin to realize what’s most important in this game and you want to leave it knowing you won a championship. That’s really all I care about now,” said Ramirez. “When you sitting at your house watching the playoffs that’s not good. When I went to L.A. [traded from the Marlins in 2012] my life changed, my career changed. I realized what was important.”

For the Red Sox to realize this championship he’s yearning for, he has to be a big part of the offense.

Ramirez is the No. 5 hitter. He hits behind David Ortiz and in front of Travis Shaw.

Ramirez was effective Friday night in Houston, driving in Dustin Pedroia in the first with a sacrifice fly, singled and scored in the third, and singled to lead off the fifth — though this time thrown out trying to stretch it.

“When David gets on base, I want to drive him in,” Ramirez said.

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“It made everything easier for me,” he said about winning over fans. “We’re going to have a really good year. We’ve lost a couple of tough games, but those will balance out. We’ll win our share of games. We have a good team here. The guys really care for one another. Everybody wants to pick up the other guy.”

Baseball is an individual sports amid a team sport. Players like Ramirez who earn $22 million a year have to produce big numbers. He has to, as he says, produce when it counts most. He has to drive in runs and then turn around and play good defense.

The first base experiment has gone well. He’s not made an error. He’s saved throws on balls in the dirt, stretched on throws to get the out, and generally fielded well. He’s been a decent first baseman, certainly not a liability.

And there’s the maturity factor. Ramirez gets it now.

He’s also been able to avoid injury so far. The feeling is if he’s comfortable at first base, which he says he is, is less apt to hurt himself. We’ll see. He’s advanced in so many areas. What he must be now is dominant in the lineup, closer to his career averages. Everyone expects a complete player, offensively and defensively, if the $88 million commitment to him is going to be worthwhile.

That didn’t happen last season. He has a chance this season to make up for it.

He has the fans on his side. Fans like players who hustle, and he’s doing that. Fans like players who run the bases well and hard, and he’s doing that.

Now, as the No. 5 hitter, he must produce big-time offensive numbers and big-time hits. When he starts doing that, we’ll know Ramirez has done a 180-degree turn in his career and life.