Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 4/18/12
MILWAUKEE Last season, there was little arguing whether Milwaukee's Ryan Braun or Los Angeles' Matt Kemp deserved NL MVP consideration. Kemp led the NL in home runs (39) and RBI (126) and added 40 stolen bases, while Braun finished just short of him in all three categories and led the league in slugging percentage and OPS. But with the direction Braun's Brewers were heading in -- their first division title in 29 years -- compared to the direction of Kemp's Dodgers, who finished just a few ticks over .500, the award ultimately landed on Braun's mantel. Through 11 games of the 2012 season, however, Braun's and Kemp's teams are in entirely different places. The Dodgers are the hottest team in baseball, having blazed their way to Miller Park with a 9-1 record before coming two outs from another win Tuesday night. George Kottaras' walk-off two-run double in a 5-4 victory made the Brewers 5-6 and helped them sidestep a five-game slump -- something that happened only twice all of last season. And while Braun and Kemp continue to pad the stat sheet on offense -- Kemp, in particular, leads the league in five statistical categories -- it's the spot below each player in the lineup that's made a noticeable difference in the offensive trajectory of both teams. The prospect of replacing cleanup superstar Prince Fielder was near-impossible, as Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke has acknowledged on several occasions already this season. But by adding third baseman Aramis Ramirez, one of the NL's better hitters in 2011, the Brewers hoped some of Fielder's offensive output would be replaced. But through 11 games, Ramirez has struggled at the plate, hitting just .103 -- without a home run -- and tallying an on-base percentage (.163) not much better than his batting average. It was enough of an early-season struggle to prompt Ramirez to come to Roenicke's office before Tuesday's game, determined to apologize for his slow start in the cleanup spot. "He wants to do something to help this team, and he feels like he isn't doing it right now," Roenicke said. "I still like where he is. He's the guy we're going to need. If we don't have him, if we don't have a good, solid fourth hitter, it's hard to get things done offensively." It's been a different story for the Dodgers, though, as cleanup man Andre Ethier has been one of the best hitters in the NL to start the season, leading the league in RBI. He showcased his hot start on Tuesday with a two-run, go-ahead home run that would've been the game-winner had it not been for Kottaras' latest big hit. "The runs Matt hasn't driven in, it seems like Andre has," Dodgers' manager Don Mattingly said. "It's been important. Putting two guys together like that in the middle of the order... that puts a lot of pressure on other teams." That dynamite combo has accounted for 33 RBI in Los Angeles, while Braun and Ramirez have only nine combined through 11 games. And without an improved threat at the four spot, Mattingly said he believes at-bats will ultimately change for last year's NL MVP. "I think (Braun) is going to get pitched differently," Mattingly said. "He had like two intentional walks last year -- that's going to change, that's just the way it is. The guy behind him can hit, he's been a big RBI guy, but he's not Prince. It's going to be different for him." It's likely too early to tell if Braun will indeed be pitched differently with a different guy in the cleanup spot, just as it's too early to tell whether Ramirez will thrive in Fielder's stead -- Ramirez did, after all, finish with 25 home runs and 83 RBI in 2010, after starting similarly slow. And Ethier is no stranger to hot starts, so whether he can stay healthy and continue his current pace is just as much of a question mark. But what's not in question is that both teams' direction this season could depend a lot on their production in the ever-important No. 4 spot. And for the Brewers, that means crossing their fingers that Ramirez can turn things around sooner rather than later. Follow Ryan Kartje on Twitter.
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