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An Ethier-eal existence? (cont.)

Posted: Thursday August 17, 2006 11:42AM; Updated: Thursday August 17, 2006 1:54PM
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Ethier's fellow rookie Russell Martin has stepped up as a team leader during the Dodgers' season-saving hot streak.
Ethier's fellow rookie Russell Martin has stepped up as a team leader during the Dodgers' season-saving hot streak.
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But now that Ethier is playing every day, teams are getting to know him more, and the day-to-day exertion is piling up. That has Little on his guard.

"We're kind of watching him a little more regularly lately," said Little, who on Monday left Ethier out of the starting lineup for the first time since June 28.

Little added that Ethier doesn't appear to be tiring so far, and his 1 for 13 over a recent four-game stretch is too small a sample to indicate otherwise. There are other reasons to fear for the robust brew of Ethier's stats, however. His batting average on balls in play is .396 -- the highest in baseball among batters with 300 plate appearances or more.

What this means is that either Ethier possesses a preternatural ability to hit 'em where they ain't, or the 6-foot-1 208-pounder has gotten more than his share of luck at the outset of his career. That's not to say that Ethier hasn't hit into any hard outs -- just that more frustration could come his way.

There's also the potential effect of increased pressure to deal with. Thanks in no small part to Ethier, who OPSed .979 as the Dodgers won 17 of 18 games to vault from last place to first in their division, every game down the stretch will be huge for Los Angeles. Every at-bat has more people paying attention, more consequences.

For example, on Aug. 10, another beautiful night in Los Angeles that belied the tension in the air, Ethier came up with the score 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning against the Colorado Rockies. Though the Dodgers' 11-game winning streak had ended the night before, the team still needed a victory to reach first place. The left-handed Ethier -- who boasts an OPS of .947 against same-side pitching -- blasted a go-ahead home run well beyond the center-field wall off Colorado southpaw Ray King.

Reflecting on the at-bat, Ethier indicated that he doesn't have a fear of failure, that he only thinks about how much he can succeed. Moreover, he has embraced the responsibility thrust upon him and the Dodgers' other rookie regular, catcher Russell Martin.

"I feel that any guy who follows baseball knows that me, Russell Martin, that's who they're going to go with," Ethier said. "This is kind of our team, what was decided after the trading deadline was over with. You've just got to keep plugging away."

In other words, no mystery. Sure, Ethier's stats might eventually fall in line with a more normal career trajectory. The alternative ending is that Ethier's performance is just now beginning to match his ability.

Whatever the reckoning, Ethier has become a player to be reckoned with.

"Nothing he does surprises me, to tell you the truth," Little said.

A sportswriter with the Los Angeles Daily News and Los Angeles Times, Jon Weisman writes about the Dodgers and baseball at Dodger Thoughts. His book, The Best of Dodger Thoughts, is on sale now.