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Andre Ethier looks forward to a fresh start for Dodgers in 2011

February 18, 2011 |  6:48 am

Ethier_300 For six weeks, it looked like nothing could stop Andre Ethier. Not the knee he hyperextended in spring training. Not the ankle he sprained the first week of the season. And not a pitcher in the National League.

Ethier seemed an unstoppable force. He terrorized NL pitching. Through those first six weeks, he was the best hitter in baseball. He was leading the Triple Crown categories.

And then he was felled by a pinky.

Ethier fractured his right pinky in batting-practice swing. He went on the disabled list for two weeks, but when he returned, he was a different hitter.

In his first 33 games before injuring his pinky, Ethier was batting .392 with 11 home runs and 38 RBI. In the 106 games after he returned, he went .260-12-44.

He now admits he returned from the injury too quickly, the hand never fully regaining its strength.

"You play enough seasons, injuries are going to happen," Ethier said. "Unfortunately it was one where it affected my swing a little bit, affected the way I held the bat.

"And I probably rushed back a little too early without taking the proper steps. Anyone can play the what-ifs. What if didn't happen? But at the same time, you have to stomach that's what type of season it was."

His final numbers on the season: .292-23-82.

Decent numbers, just disappointing considering his blistering start. Disappointing, when he seemed on the verge on becoming one of baseball’s elite hitters.

This season, however, the Dodgers need for Ethier to at least find some middle ground between his first six weeks and his next four months. If the Dodgers once-young core of Matt Kemp, James Loney and Ethier don’t elevate their games, the offense figures to again be bogged down.

For Ethier, that will require reasonable health. He said the knee, ankle and pinky continued to bother him throughout 2010.

He said the knee would sometimes pinch when he swung: "Now it's at a point where I feel back to normal, back to feeling good."

He said the ankle remained stiff: "I didn’t really have time to rest it. It was a little locked up. I've got it back into position where I don’t have to be putting a taped cast on it every game to go out and play."

And, of course, there was the pinky: "It was just getting that stiffness out of the joint and making it to the point where I had full strength. I lost a little bit of strength with that bone being broken and not using my fingers and joints the same way I'm capable. Now I feel like where I'm back to the same strength and at least holding the bat the same way I"ve always done."

Ethier, who’ll turn 29 in April, rehabbed his injuries this winter in Arizona while working out with his former Arizona State teammate Dustin Pedroia, now a Boston Red Sox star.

"I've been working out since the first of the year, taking all my hacks and doing all that stuff, gearing up and getting excited again for the start of the season," he said.

No doubt, some new injury awaits. Ethier believes he's learned from last year's experience, when he might have mentally been using the injuries as an excuse.

"I maybe could have battled a little bit more," he said. "But you don’t learn that until you go through it and step back and realize sometimes you have a little more to give through the injuries and don't use it as much as an excuse. Just find a way to face adversity and find a way to come through it."

If the Dodgers are going to return as an offensive force, they'll need a productive Ethier. Healthy, or battling injuries.

-- Steve Dilbeck

Photo: Andre Ethier. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times