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Posted: Wednesday October 14, 2009 12:06PM; Updated: Wednesday October 14, 2009 2:05PM
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INSIDE BASEBALL

Fiery competitor Ethier headlines Dodgers' talented young core

Story Highlights

Ethier: "I'm calm off the field, but something about this game fires me up"

Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly likens Ethier to former Yankee Paul O'Neill

Ethier's flanked by a couple of homegrown studs: Matt Kemp and James Loney

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Andre Ethier
Andre Ethier hit .500 with five extra-base hits in the Dodgers' sweep of St. Louis.
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There are times -- like when he's conducting a giant yoga instruction on the outfield of Dodger Stadium to help boost the team's female fan base, or when he's conducting a champagne-spraying exhibition in the middle of the Dodgers clubhouse after they've clinched a return to the National League Championship Series -- when everybody wants to be around Andre Ethier. Then there are the times when absolutely no one wants to be around Ethier. This usually occurs any time he makes an out.

Whether a sharply hit line drive is caught or he's left staring at a third strike, Ethier's Hulk-like transformation from friendly, engaging 27-year-old star and emerging clubhouse leader into cursing, spitting 6-foot-1, 200-pound ball of fury from whom no batting helmet or water cooler is safe is remarkable. What's even more remarkable is that Ethier himself has no idea why it happens. "I'm calm off the field," he said after he had almost single-handedly led the Dodgers to a three-game sweep of the Cardinals with a .500 batting average and five extra-base hits. "But something about this game fires me up."

The challenge for the Dodgers this season, as it will be in the rest of the postseason, has been keeping those fires burning without letting them consume Ethier or the rest of the team. Fully ensconced as the team's cleanup hitter and protector of Manny Ramirez, Ethier emerged this season as the team's most consistent and reliable slugger and thus the fulcrum of their offense. He finished the regular season with career highs in home runs (31), RBIs (106), hits (162), runs (92), walks (72) and total bases (302), but his slash stats slipped from .305/.375/.510 in 2008 to .272/.361/.508. When he's hitting well, the entire lineup is transformed into an almost unstoppable force. When he isn't, both he and the Dodgers are liable to self-destruct.

During a nine-game stretch late in September in which the Dodgers lost seven of nine while trying to wrap up the NL West, Ethier batted just .103 with no home runs. But in the Division Series, he was in the middle of almost every rally and repeatedly delivered timely hits, such as his game-tying home run in Game 2 off Cardinals co-ace Adam Wainwright that kept the Dodgers in the game long enough for their late-inning heroics, or his two-run homer in Game 3 that pushed L.A.'s lead to 3-0 and provided all the margin needed to finish off St. Louis.

Afterward, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said of Ethier, "He went to another level in this series."

Don Mattingly, the Dodgers hitting coach who spent his entire 14-year career as a player with the Yankees, likens Ethier to Paul O'Neill, a former Yankees teammate and another lefty with a swing of beauty, in both talent and temperament. Either during or after an at-bat, both could go off at any time. Also like O'Neill, Mattingly said, "When he gets mad, he concentrates more. I tell him, you're an East Coasty guy. The key is not letting him get so frustrated. He gets so mad and is so hard on himself. With 'Dre sometimes the wires cross and we can't get him back."

During one game this year against the Rockies, Ethier battled through an 11-pitch at-bat, a battle he eventually lost. When he got back to the dugout, he was fuming. Mattingly gently told him that he'd had a great at-bat, which did nothing to douse his fury. "I didn't get a hit," he practically spat. "It's not a great at-bat."

Mattingly has learned that discussion of battles lost while the fight is still going on can only lead to a war of words with his tempestuous pupil. "You can't talk to him during a game," he said. "You don't fight personalities, and the biggest fight with him is not letting him give away at-bats because he's so upset. I'll say, so what if you got out? You won the battle, you hit the ball hard. You can't guide it. You did what you had to do."

Likewise, his teammates keep their distance during the game, but let the barbs fly the next day. "We all mess with him," first baseman James Loney said. "We say, 'Make sure you save a helmet today.' "

Such behavior is nothing new for Ethier, who has been, as he says, "a little rough," all his life in competitive situations. That is in contrast to his off-the-field personality, where he kept a surprisingly thoughtful and detailed blog as an amateur restaurant reviewer for MLB.com last year called "Dining With 'Dre" and has become adept enough at yoga that when the wife of Dodgers owner Frank McCourt asked him to lead a yoga session in the outfield before a game this July to help attract more women to the game, he happily accepted. Over 100 people, mostly females, showed up to learn from this yogi, though many admitted they had been drawn by Ethier's Hollywood idol looks as much as the chance for some outdoor exercise.

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