ST. LOUIS - Dodgers manager Don Mattingly seemed resigned to being without the benefit of perhaps the best player on his team: Hanley Ramirez.

Never mind penciling the shortstop's name into the starting lineup. Hours before the Dodgers faced the Cardinals in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series Friday night, Mattingly wasn't sure if Ramirez could even come off the bench. The pain in Ramirez's cracked rib had flared yet again.

"We're hoping he'll be available to pinch hit," Mattingly said. "Obviously, we didn't feel like he could swing right now or we'd have him in there.''

Then something changed.

In a move announced only a half-hour before the first pitch, Ramirez started Game 6, hitting cleanup and playing short.

Initially, the Dodgers elected to start Nick Punto at shortstop and move the suddenly resurgent Yasiel Puig back into the cleanup spot, a move that Mattingly hoped would solidify the middle of the lineup.

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When Ramirez emerged on the field for warm-ups, his every move was watched closely by team trainers, who have spent much of the series coaxing his body through the rigors of game action.

Since taking Joe Kelly's fastball in the ribs during Game 1, Ramirez has been far from the player who helped power the Dodgers' second-half resurgence. Despite constant displays of his toughness -- he has started all but Game 2 -- he has been a mere shell of himself.

He demolished the Braves, hitting .500 in the NL Division Series, but his NLCS was ruined the moment that fateful fastball left Kelly's hand. Ramirez began the day hitting .167 in the series. His only two hits came in Game 3, both flares into the outfield for singles. At best, he has appeared compromised. At worst, he has been overmatched.

He complained at times of being unable to fully extend his right arm. He winced after taking forceful swings. He moved slowly. It hurt to laugh.

In Game 5, as the Dodgers blasted their way back into the series, Ramirez again faded into the background. Shortly after he bounced into a double play, he took out his frustration on a water cooler in the Dodgers' dugout. For the second straight game, he was pulled for a defensive replacement.

"The last couple of games, the at-bats haven't been good," Mattingly said. "So just to have him go up there doesn't necessarily do us any good unless he can swing the bat. So we'll just kind of go with it and see what it looks like."

From the start, Ramirez has been reassured that playing through his injury likely won't worsen the condition unless he gets hit in the same spot. His availability boiled down to how much pain he could withstand. The answer has changed from day to day, hour to hour.

Just a day earlier, Mattingly expressed guarded optimism regarding Ramirez, hoping the schedule might provide a reprieve. Game 5 was played during the daytime Wednesday before a day off Thursday. In essence, he had more than two full days to recuperate.

But early Friday, he couldn't swing a bat. It made for what appeared to be an easy decision -- until Mattingly sprung his surprise.