Ethier tries to pick up where he left off

Andre Ethier has been out since May 15, when he broke his right pinkie in batting practice. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Andre Ethier can see the positive side of it now, how his soft launch into the Dodgers' starting lineup helped him grow into a more patient, professional hitter.

It took a full two years for him to feel confident his name would be written on the lineup card posted on the door of the Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse every day. Two years of biding his time, even though every part of him wanted to scream out that he was more than a platoon player.

"I don't think Grady Little and that staff had a big -- I don't know if I would say 'faith' -- but belief in young guys at that time," Ethier said of Dodgers coaches in 2006 and '07. "I think they preferred guys with a little more experience.

"But at the same time I'm glad it happened because things slow down a lot more. If you go out there playing every day when you're young, it can be a whirlwind and then you look up three or four months into the season and think, 'How'd I get here?'

"I would've rather had that playing consistently earlier on so maybe I could've got started off a little earlier in my career, but at the same time I think it was an advantage for some of us to take a step back and learn how to see the game from other directions, pick brains and just be around. There's so many parts to this game you need to learn."

He's sincere in talking about learning from veterans like Luis Gonzalez and Jeff Kent, about not getting caught up in the whirlwind and taking time to learn how to make adjustments and fight through slumps. It's just that waiting -- longer than he expected to or should've had to -- for a chance to break through has been an annoying, recurring theme in Ethier's career.

He waited his first season in college when the coaches at Arizona State told him the only playing time he could get that year would be at a junior college. And he waited his first 1½ seasons in the majors, when he had to prove he could hit lefties well enough to play every day.

Ethier met those challenges and left little doubt he belonged. In college he played at Chandler-Gilbert Community College for a year, then returned to the Sun Devils and became a star. And if you've paid any attention to the Dodgers' last season or this one, you already know what he's become at the major league level: one of the best young hitters in baseball.

"He's just a pure hitter," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "He attacks the ball; he hits line drives all over the place. If I'm a catcher, he's tough for me to pitch to because he doesn't give you any part of the plate. To me, he's Paul O'Neill with more power."

But just as the rest of baseball was beginning to appreciate the sweet-swinging lefty, there was another delay.

On May 15, in the middle of a manically productive May in which he was hitting .490 (24-for-49) with five home runs and 19 RBIs, Ethier broke his right pinkie in batting practice before a game against the San Diego Padres.

At the time, he was leading the National League in all three Triple Crown categories with a .392 average, 11 home runs and 38 RBIs. That put him on pace to hit 51 homers and drive in 176 runs. Now, after a 15-day stint on the disabled list from which he is eligible to return Monday, Ethier is tied for sixth in homers and tied for third in RBIs. His .392 batting average would still be best in the NL, but he no longer has enough at-bats to qualify among the league leaders.

"I took pride in playing every day and playing through some of the nagging stuff," Ethier said after he was placed on the DL. "This is a year that has challenged me more in terms of playing every day.

"There was the knee that held me out the last couple of games in spring training, and then there was the ankle thing in the second game of the season. Those are bigger things that you expect to hold you out, but a small little chip of a bone off your pinkie, that was the last thing I thought about at this point."

It's hard to say what Ethier can learn from this recent setback, other than to not let his right pinkie slip under the knob of the bat as he's hitting.

What's telling is how he's responded to it.

While others may have sat out until the finger was 100 percent healed, Ethier tried to play through it. When it was apparent he couldn't, he looked for any way he could quickly rejoin the team as it looks to make headway in the tightly bunched National League West. The Dodgers are two games behind San Diego and half a game ahead of the Giants.

A breakthrough in Ethier's healing came after Dodgers trainer Stan Conte reached out to Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, who recommended a splint that would immobilize the first knuckle of his right pinkie but leave the second knuckle flexible.

What was initially feared to be a three- to six-week recovery period will now be only a little more than two weeks. He is expected to return to the Dodgers' lineup Monday against Arizona.

Ethier's sense of responsibility about returning to the Dodgers as quickly as he could is the latest evidence of his growing clubhouse presence and leadership.

"Last year was the big year I think we really took over and established ourselves," Ethier said, referring also to teammates Matt Kemp, James Loney and Russell Martin.

"But I can even remember Joe, in August of '07 or '08, saying that, 'Moving forward, this team and this organization is relying on you young guys, not on the veteran players. The success of this is going to depend on you guys. Either accept it or we'll have to make some changes.'

"With that being said, it hasn't been a surprise it's come our way. We were told it was going to happen.

"We've had our ups and downs with it because it's tough to find a way to be a leader when we still lack experience, and there still are veteran guys on this team that have so many years in. But still, you've got to go out there and walk around like you're a leader of this team."

Accepting that responsibility and living up to it are different things.

The easiest way to do that is to play as well as Ethier has the past two seasons.

In addition to hitting .392, Ethier was averaging a home run every 11.4 at bats before he broke his pinkie. That spike has continued his impressive power progression. In 2006 he averaged a home run every 36.0 at-bats. In 2007 he was up to 34.4, in 2008 it was 26.3 and last year he homered every 19.2 at-bats.

The strides he's made as a man are harder to quantify, but no less important.

Ethier has always been something of a perfectionist. He likes to succeed and he works every day to help make that happen. When it doesn't, he doesn't always react kindly to it.

More than a few batting helmets and water coolers have been on the receiving end of Ethier's frustrations.

General manager Ned Colletti said Ethier's "passion" for the game was one of the things the organization liked about him when it acquired him from Oakland before the 2006 season in a trade for Milton Bradley. He also knew it might take some time for Ethier to harness that side of his personality and make it work for him.

"There's nothing wrong with being passionate," Colletti said. "I'd rather have passion like that than indifference.

"We knew that if he could take that passion and put it in another location, it [would] be pretty special."

Ethier's perfectionism might've gotten the better of him his first year in the majors, as he worked himself into a frustrated mess in September and October (hitting just .132) after hitting .335 from May through August.

"I remember September of 2006 very vividly," Colletti said. "I had to talk to him a couple times and say, 'Hey, will you calm down, relax a little bit? You're going to be fine.'

"I mean, he played one month in Triple-A. He and Martin came up about five weeks into that season, and to think that you can come up out of Double-A, go through a big league spring training, spend a month in Las Vegas Triple-A, come to Dodger Stadium and everything is going to go seamless and perfectly? You could make a Hollywood script out of that."

Ethier knew Colletti was right, but it wasn't in his nature to shrug off failure so easily. He tried to relax, but that's not easy to do when you're trying to win an everyday major league job. He kept working and trusted in the coaches and mentors who told him everything would be fine.

But the only advice that mattered came from his wife, Maggie, who sat him down after their first son, Dreson, was born and talked to him about the way his actions can be perceived.

"My kid taught me patience instantly," Ethier said. "I've got a little guy now and he's going to be paying attention to how I act and react. I mean, kids copy and emulate everything that you do. You can't cuss around a kid because the next day they'll use that same word.

"It was an eye-opener for me when my wife put it that way.

"And afterwards, it was something I felt a little embarrassed about, because it wasn't just my kid but other kids out there, looking up to you and I was being that type of example.

"It was a life change I had to make. No more certain radio stations in the car, no more certain TV stations, it's all aspects of life. Now I've got the TV on with 'Yo Gabba Gabba' on the whole time."

Whether it was fatherhood, the confidence born from his remarkable penchant for walk-off hits or simply maturity, it's clear Ethier has arrived in a happy place.

His passion is working for him now. His patience is helping him.

"His progression isn't so much a surprise to us," Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly said. "I mean, obviously putting up Triple Crown numbers would be for anybody, but what he's been able to do [this season] doesn't surprise us at all.

"His swing is that good. His ability is that good. His work is good. Everything leans to success. It's just about confidence … and when you have the kind of success he's been having, you kind of break through to another level of confidence."

Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.