New attitude helping Andre Ethier

LOS ANGELES -- That was the healthier, mechanically sounder Andre Ethier standing at home plate in the bottom of the eighth inning on Tuesday, delivering a tiebreaking, game-winning home run into the right-field pavilion to give the Los Angeles Dodgers a 2-1, home-opening victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates before a sellout crowd of 56,000 at Dodger Stadium. In typical Hollywood fashion, the heroics came on a milestone birthday for both Ethier, who was turning 30, and the old yard, which was turning 50.

And then it was the kinder, gentler Ethier standing at his locker, patiently fielding questions from an Opening Day-sized media scrum for every bit of 20 minutes. Just as it has been a kinder, gentler Ethier pretty much all spring, for which bat racks and water coolers everywhere are grateful.

Will it last? Who knows?

"We all know there are going to be times when Dre is going to [ticked] off and beating stuff up in the dugout," said Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., one of several teammates Ethier said approached him near the end of spring training to stress the importance of relaxing and enjoying the unique and privileged life of a big league ballplayer. "That is who he is, and you want him to be himself. All I was trying to relay to him was that we have his back. Everyone in this clubhouse has his back.

"We know how important he is to this team, and he needs to have fun and enjoy what he is doing, because you don't know how long any of us is going to get to do this."

All indications are Ethier has taken the message -- which he said he also received from second baseman Mark Ellis and center fielder Matt Kemp -- to heart, at least so far. Of course, it's not that tough when you're hitting .316 with a couple of home runs and a team-high-tying nine RBIs through five games. You may have read or heard somewhere that the baseball season is long. Ethier will go through slumps, or at least comparative slumps, and a man's temperament is whatever it is.

But the thing that adds intrigue to all this is the fact Ethier is a potential free agent after the season. He stands to get a monster contract, whether it be with what we all anticipate will be the newly well-funded Dodgers or with someone else. It is no secret that Ethier is highly motivated by his future earning potential -- all players are to some extent, but Ethier, according to several sources over the years, takes it to a new level.

And so, knowing this, I predicted before the season that Ethier's performance this year, when he already has a $10.95 million base salary, will take one of two paths, with no chance of anything in between. Either he is so motivated to get that big free-agent deal that he puts together the season of his life. Or he puts so much pressure on himself that he crumbles under the weight of it.

So far, it's the former. One scout told me during spring training that a person close to Ethier had told him that Ethier was more motivated, more focused, more determined than that person ever had seen him before, and that the primary source of all that was the likelihood that the big contract Ethier has for so long coveted is now mere months away. And for now, it shows in his performance.

Five games, though, is a small sample size.

Ethier says he has changed his approach somewhat, that he is trying to live in the moment.

"It's just focusing on the task at hand," he said. "How can I help the team right now rather than worrying about two pitches from now? Just focus on that pitch at that moment. If you can slow things down like that, it really helps."

Being healthy helps, too, of course. What we didn't know for most of the second half last year when Ethier's numbers were in free fall but we did know by September, when he was missing the final two weeks following surgery, was that it was fairly impossible for him to be mechanically sound at the plate because of the pain in his right knee. What we are seeing now is what can happen when Ethier feels right, both physically and mechanically.

And, of course, mentally.

"I think Dre just seemed to be happy all spring," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He doesn't seem to be frustrated and, really, there has been no reason to be. He has been swinging the bat good all spring and all season. I think the big thing is that Dre is healthy. Last year, at times, he wasn't swinging the bat the way he was capable of. That injury obviously had a lot to do with that. But he is squared up now … and when you're squared up, that creates power. The ball takes off and continues to fly."

Whether Ethier can continue to fly for the next six months, all the way to the jackpot that awaits him next winter, probably depends largely on his emotional state and his ability and/or willingness to not let it adversely affect his performance.