Closing Time: Ethier's army, on his way

Scott Pianowski
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Some players grab your attention and pique your interest from the jump, and that was the case when I first caught Andre Ethier back in 2006. I saw a young hitter with power potential, a keen eye, a good stick against breaking pitches, unfazed by lefties. Smart enough to eventually steal 12-15 bases a year, too. I scribbled in my notebook that LA had found an outfield staple into the next decade.

A few bumps in the road have hit since then. Ethier's numbers took a mild hit across the board in 2007, and he entered this year fighting for a job (the Dodgers couldn't help themselves when Andruw Jones hit the market; they quickly tossed a bloated contract to the bloated outfielder). Ethier has managed to stay in the lineup for most of 2008 nonetheless (a monster spring staked his claim), but the production against lefties has fallen through the floor. Mixed leaguers haven't been sure what to do with Ethier, in part because the LA outfield seems to be in constant flux. The trade for Manny Ramirez took away one outfield slot, while Juan Pierre hung around, ominously.

Ethier's sweet stroke is doing all it can to simplify the issue. He quietly put together a monster August (seven homers, .615 slugging, .961 OPS), and the hits kept coming against San Diego Tuesday (three hits plus a walk, his 19th homer, four runs). Joe Torre has settled on Ethier as the team's No. 2 hitter in front of the sizzling Ramirez, clearly the catbird spot in the Los Angeles lineup. It's no coincidence that Ethier's best surge of the year started just when Ramirez hit town.

The LA lefty is still widely available in a lot of mixed groups, so there's time to get in on the fun. The only red flag from a roto standpoint is pending stork duty; Ethier's wife is expecting a child this month, which will keep Papa off the field for a few days. But given the way he's swinging right now, and LA's precarious place in the standings, the Dodgers can't afford to have Ethier out of the lineup for too long. Get Ethier on your hit list for 2009 as well; he's heading into his Age 27 season, and there's still a level or two to climb here.

The Dodgers get their own injury lap, with four notable players in the news: Takashi Saito (elbow) threw fastballs off a mound with no problems Tuesday, and Torre thinks it's possible Saito could be active by the end of next week. According to the team's official site, Torre is comfortable returning Saito to the closing role once the veteran is comfortable throwing all of his pitches. There's not a major sense of urgency to that, given that Jonathan Broxton is 11-for-13 on save chances since Saito hit the DL.

Brad Penny (shoulder) had a positive mound session Tuesday, working about 60-70 percent. He'll get back to the mound in a few more days, but it's not clear if he'll have the stamina to be a starter again this year, and he's not someone I'd be hopefully holding onto in mixed leagues. Jeff Kent's knee surgery was successful and he might be pinch hitting in a couple of weeks, not that we can do much with that from a fantasy perspective. And before we leave SoCal, let me tell you that a right leg injury took Pierre out of Tuesday's game in the seventh inning; it's not clear yet how serious it is.

Carlos Zambrano threw five uneven innings Tuesday then complained of a sore arm; the Cubs will run tests Wednesday. Sean Marshall steps into the rotation if Zambrano needs down time, and given where the Cubs are in the standings, I can't imagine how Zambrano will make his next turn. Keep your fingers crossed, North Siders.

Dustin Pedroia, franchise player? He's sure looked the part in the second half, putting together a monstrous 40 games (.366, 41 runs, seven homers, 28 RBIs, eight steals). Terry Francona has recently been using Pedroia in the cleanup spot and why the heck not? Pedroia had a couple of four-hit games last week, and he threw three hits, a homer and five RBIs at the Orioles Tuesday. I liked Pedroia just fine entering his second year, but honestly, I had no idea this power/speed breakthrough was possible.

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Speed Round: Josh Anderson had a homer and a steal in Atlanta's keg-tapper victory over Florida, and based on what he showed in the minors this summer, he's worth considering in deeper mixed groups . . . Baby steps for Aaron Harang, who threw his third straight quality start in a losing cause (6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 B, 4 K). Gopheritis remains the problem here - Harang allowed two more homers, making it 31 on the year . . . A homer and two hits for the versatile Felipe Lopez, who's got his mojo back in St. Louis. Three positions of eligibility, too . . . Make it three straight useful turns for Adam Wainwright off the DL, even though he lasted just 5.1 innings at Arizona (a win and seven strikeouts take the sting out). I hope his modest win total keeps people off the scent next year, because this guy is a legitimate No. 1 starter and fantasy stud waiting to happen . . . Paul Azinger didn't have a slew of Ryder Cup options at the end of the day, but there's no way I would have taken long-hitting but erratic J.B. Holmes over veteran Scott Verplank. If I sound like Dusty Baker when I say that, so be it . . . I suppose someone is hitting Cole Hamels because that 3.01 ERA came from somewhere, but every time I scout the guy, he looks untouchable (my adopted Nats couldn't solve him over seven innings Tuesday). The last six starts for the lefty look like this: 42.2 innings, eight runs, six walks, 34 strikeouts.

Much rejoicing in Cleveland, Victor Martinez finally hit a homer. Kelly Shoppach had a couple of hits, too. The Tribe got another win from Fausto Carmona (three in a row), though he still doesn't look anything like the ace we saw last summer. The surging Indians have settled into third place in the AL Central and might steal a winning record before the season ends.

Clayton Kershaw tired at the end of his Tuesday start against San Diego, but overall it was an excellent turn (7 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 6 K). He's pushed his way into the circle of trust for the remainder of the year, and I certainly like him next Monday at San Diego.

Injury Lap: Jesus Flores took the brunt of this nasty home-plate collision with Chase Utley, but the Nats are hoping the backstop merely has a sprained ankle. We'll know more when he's re-examined Wednesday . . . A bunch of grounded Orioles: Jeremy Guthrie has a dead arm and will miss a turn, Melvin Mora remains out indefinitely with his sore hamstring, and Jim Johnson will have an MRI on his sore shoulder . . . Johnny Cueto (elbow) should be able to start this weekend against Chicago . . . Joe Crede's sore back knocked him out of Tuesday's game . . . Mark Grudzielanek (ankle) is officially done for the year, if you play in an AL-Central Only league . . . Mike Aviles merely has a bruised finger, nothing worse, and he rejoined the lineup Tuesday . . . Jarrod Saltalamacchia (strained forearm muscle) won't play again in 2008 . . . Troy Percival (knee) came off the DL and steps back into the closing gig for Tampa Bay.

You close the game out, they shake your hand: B.J. Ryan (26), perfect inning with two strikeouts . . . Jose Valverde (39), man is he locked in . . . Frank Francisco (3), taking the job and running with it (three whiffs, 14 of 16 strikes) . . . Matt Capps (18), healthy again and rolling again . . . Rick Vaughn (17), who remember was lights out in the California Penal League . . . Mike Gonzalez (8), one of the few pitchers who got out of Florida alive (Matt Lindstrom took the loss on the other side) . . . Luis Ayala (5), with two strikeouts and two stranded runners . . . Joakim Soria (34), the best closer no one gushes about . . . And of course Francisco Rodriguez (54), pitching out of a jam at Detroit.

Hope most of the numbers fell your way, friends. Dr. Behrens will be your guide tomorrow night.