The sound of a bat cracking. The crowd, raising its collective eyebrow as if to say “what’s this?” on that June 4th evening at Dodger Stadium drew a collective gasp, the burst out in wild celebration as Yasiel Puig’s 439 foot blast to left-center field scored three runs and tied the score against the San Diego Padres at 5-5. Crack! Another home run in the late innings. Dodgers win 9-7.
With Puig came the possibility that this “A Whole New Blue” concept that the marketing department at Dodger Stadium had come up with didn’t represent the beginning of an era when the Dodgers would flounder in last place, devoid of clutch hitting or big wins. In just two games, Puig had saved one game with his arm and won a second with his bat.
The spark was in place. But as the Dodgers began to lose again after the initial wave of enthusiasm that Puig brought with him when he was called up from AA Chattanooga and started to light the league on fire, it was apparent that the Dodgers needed more. As Puig’s star appeared to not burn brightly enough, The Blog put out an article calling for the firing of manager Don Mattingly (along with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt) and suggested that the time may have come to part ways with outfielder Andre Ethier.
A funny thing happened on the Dodgers’ way to an unsalvageable season in the cellar, however. Don Mattingly, who had the exact opposite of the “Midas Touch” the first two months of the season, suddenly could do no wrong. The spark that Puig brought turned into a fully-burning wildfire and the Dodgers ran off sixteen wins in nineteen games.
And the fan favorite Ethier, through what has seemed like an Act of God, found himself fully necessary.
It wasn’t that long ago that Ethier was in everybody’s dog house. Facing scrutiny, Mattingly visibly placed blame and put a challenge to Ethier, benching him for the May 22nd game against the Milwaukee Brewers. When asked why Mattingly was making the decision to bench Ethier, who was hitting .264 at the time and in the midst of a slump that would see his average dip as low as .232, Mattingly said “(t)here’s a touch of a difference between saying you’re giving your best effort and you’re willing to fight for something. Some guys go to another level for that price, will do whatever it takes to win a game … that inside, you’re not beating me today. There’s something there you can’t measure with Sabermetrics. You can’t put a number on it.” The comment seemed to indicate that Mattingly did not believe that Ethier was putting forth the effort necessary to compete and win games.
In light of the benching and speculation that he wanted out of L.A., Ethier made a statement in the Ken Gurnick article linked above about the benching that has since proved to be eerily prophetic. Despite speculation that a feud between Ethier and Mattingly was a driving force behind the teams’ underperformance including a documented refence to Mattingly feeling that Ethier “given away a hundred at bats” during the 2011 season due to an inability to control his emotions, Ethier showed surprising support for his manager, stating he believed that Mattingly should remain in his position. “Why not? We’re not out of this, by far,” Ethier said. “With a good run in the next month or two we’ll be back there where we need to be by the All-Star break.” Despite the fact that the team’s struggles continued beyond the May 22nd benching, the good run that Ethier believed could happen did happen, and the Dodgers find themselves only a game and a half back of the division lead and back over .500 with only three games to go until the break.
As trade talks and speculation surrounded Andre Ethier, he began to hit. In fact, as of today, he has hit .345 since June 6th, and while he has only one home run during that time, the hits seem to be coming in clutch situations. The moody Ethier did his talking with his bat and his glove. The Great Dodger In The Sky couldn’t stop Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford from having unhealthy hamstrings, but in the sense that maybe there’s a reason for everything, Andre Ethier became his own reason. As his batting average rose steadily from .232 to .273, Ethier mostly kept quiet. But the body language difference was evident.
The change truly seemed to start on June 11th on a night when Zack Greinke and Ian Kennedy decided to start exchanging bean balls, including a Kennedy pitch that hit Yasiel Puig in the head and another that came up and in on the helmet of Zack Greinke. Ethier followed up the beaning of Puig by depositing a ball over the right field fence that tied the score at two. The game would result in a benches-clearing brawl after Kennedy beaned Greinke and the Dodgers would eventually win by a score of 5-3. After that, Ethier’s bat seemed to come alive and has been steadily hot since, lost in the shuffle behind Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig who have both hit around .400 over the same stretch.
The man who once wore a scowl everywhere he went and stared down umpires from the dugout was smiling. Laughing. If Mattingly told Ethier to play center, he played center. If Mattingly told Ethier to play right, he played right. If Mattingly told Ethier to play left, he played left. None of it seemed to matter. Given a night off on July 11th against the Colorado Rockies, Mattingly sent Ethier in to replace an injured Yasiel Puig in center field in the top of the eighth inning. Ethier bounced out to the field and began warming up with right fielder Scott Van Slyke, a smile on his face. The Dodger Stadium cameras captured this and the fans roared with approval which turned Ethier’s smile from big to downright electric. A man thought to have become a malcontent, who has a contract that will pay him at least $85 million over the next several seasons, suddenly is playing with all the energy and enthusiasm of a Little Leaguer while showing all the talent that he has as a Major Leaguer.
Meanwhile, Mattingly continued to fight for his job and fight to get his players to respond and go on the hot streak that Ethier had talked about. After the May 22nd move to bench Ethier resulted in a 9-2 Dodgers victory, Mattingly still found himself with a bullpen that couldn’t hold leads and a closer in Brandon League who couldn’t seem to close out any games he appeared in. Puig’s debut added some spark to the team, but it didn’t seem to make a clear difference.
The brawl seemed to be the point where Mattingly really made his stand. With the Diamondbacks holding a significant lead in the National League West and looking to expand it, Mattingly found himself in the middle of the fracas with Alan Trammell in front of him. It seemed that the 1980’s All Stars that make up the coaching staffs of the Dodgers and Diamondbacks were even more focused on the fight than the players who came together, with Mark McGwire up in the faces of Kirk Gibson and Matt Williams. But it was Mattingly’s throw-down of Trammell seemed to make the loudest statement of all, a visible, physical message that told his players “I am not going to let these guys mess with you.”
Still, success did not come overnight after the brawl. The Dodgers fell 12 games under .500. They found themselves buried 9 1/2 games behind the Diamondbacks, in last place, and with the press, the media, and even this blog speculating that the Dodgers may have found themselves selling at the deadline despite starting the season with high expectations and a $230 million payroll.
Then the Dodgers won the last two games of a weekend four game series in San Diego. They swept the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium. The bullpen woes started to iron themselves out. Kenley Jansen, who had replaced Brandon League in the closer role, started shutting down the opposition in the ninth inning with stunning frequency. The bats came alive. Puig kept hitting. Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier hit. Adrian Gonzalez hit. Juan Uribe had a seven RBI game in San Francisco. As the media focused on Puig, as Hanley Ramirez started to carry the offense, as the bullpen rounded into form and Ronald Belisario began to become the shut-down setup man that he is known to be, the attention shifted from the struggles of Mattingly and Ethier to the successes of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the sensation that is Yasiel Puig. No longer squarely under the microscope, both men have seemed to find their stride.
There are plenty of games left to play. The Dodgers have not taken over the division lead and October Baseball in Los Angeles is far from guaranteed. But if the emergence of Andre Ethier and the managerial turn-around of Don Mattingly are any indication, if the attitude of the ballclub says anything about what they are made of, a playoff return and a National League West Division Championship appear to be well within the Dodgers’ reach.
- Carl Crawford’s Hamstring Injury Called “Significant”; Andre Ethier Earns Reprieve (ericsdodgersblog.wordpress.com)
- Fire Don Mattingly. (And Send Rick Honeycutt With Him.) (ericsdodgersblog.wordpress.com)
- The Rise of Puig (Is It Mess With Dre Day?) (ericsdodgersblog.wordpress.com)
- FedEx: Bases Cleared, Guaranteed. Dewey Defeats Truman. Dodgers 5, Diamondbacks 3 (ericsdodgersblog.wordpress.com)