Ethier’s patience wins over the moment

LOS ANGELES – When the game was over Friday afternoon and he’d driven in the winning run and thankfully not taken the last fly ball off his face, Andre Ethier(notes) sat amid the duffel bags in the Dodgers’ clubhouse, he listened to Joe Torre muse over the ugliness of such a win, and he wondered what was running through his own body.

By then, the Los Angeles Dodgers had scored their runs in the eighth and they’d given themselves a chance after two games of the National League championship series. By then, the people had cleared out from Dodger Stadium and were inching along the narrow streets of Chavez Ravine, and the late-afternoon sun had turned the San Gabriel Mountains a purplish gray.

They’d won 2-1. Pedro Martinez(notes) was sensational but didn’t beat them. The Philadelphia Phillies’ breakneck offense got a fourth-inning home run from Ryan Howard(notes), but Vicente Padilla(notes), Hong-Chih Kuo(notes) and Jonathan Broxton(notes) pitched to the minimum 17 Phillies from there. And the six teammates who’d batted before him in the eighth inning, they’d put Ethier in a familiar place, the game there to win or not, and he’d won it by watching rookie reliever J.A. Happ’s(notes) seventh pitch to him arrive under the strike zone.

“Close,” Happ would say later, “but I guess not close enough.”

It was all behind Ethier. The game was over, the crowd had gone quiet, teammates packed for Philly. Yet as Torre spoke, reminding them who they are and what still is out there for them, Ethier could not quiet his body.

It trembled, like it wouldn’t let go. Like it couldn’t let go.

“That much emotion,” he said.

It surprised him. Through a season that had affirmed his status – not as a good young player, not as a player with promise, not as a product of Manny – but as a player, Ethier had left every game on the field, where it belonged. Through a season in which he’d ended six games on the spot, four with home runs, he’d taken his celebratory home-plate beatings and left them all right there.

But this was different. His head told him the game was over. The scoreboard confirmed it. Yet his hands shook and his heart fluttered, as though he never had gotten out of the batter’s box, and the noise never had abated, and Charlie Manuel was going through another pitcher, the Phillies’ bullpen still trying to get the final six outs.

Somewhere inside Ethier, Phillies third baseman Pedro Feliz(notes) was putting a glove on but not fielding Casey Blake’s(notes) leadoff grounder, and Chan Ho Park(notes) was flopping around trying to grab Ronnie Belliard’s(notes) bunt, and Chase Utley(notes) was heaving another ball toward the dugout, and the game was creeping toward him. And eventually Ethier was standing in the on-deck circle watching Matt Kemp(notes) swing over a changeup, and Manuel was calling for the left-handed Happ, and with two out and three on and the score 1-1, Ethier was striding toward a game he would win. Or not.

There, in the shadows, Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly’s voice was in his head.

Andre Ethier laid off this J.A. Happ pitch.
Getty Images

“Relax. Compose yourself. Be patient. Get your pitch.”

The whole plate appearance, over and over, just like Mattingly would say it.

Behind him in the owner’s box adjacent to the dugout, the mayor of Los Angeles was waving a white towel. Kobe Bryant was standing with his arms folded. Owner Frank McCourt was standing nearby hoping to high-five Kobe Bryant, and Jamie McCourt – the other owner/not owner/to be determined – was bouncing gaily in the front row. It had been three hours of Pedro rockin’ the long sleeves and all arm angles and nuance, Padilla pitching the game of his life, Park having a better day than Ronan Tynan but not by much, the Phillies bullpen doing its Balloon Boy Vomit impersonation, and now what Ethier was thinking was, swing. Ethier so wanted to swing, to put the ball in play and win the game, to hand it to Broxton and have it be over.

As of Thursday evening, Ethier had been sure Happ would start Game 2. So while he never had faced him, he had done some thinking.

After four fastballs, Happ was ahead, 1-and-2. Ethier had fouled three. Happ threw a changeup away for ball two, then a fastball away for ball three. The count was full.

“I was ready,” Happ would say. “Plenty warm.”

He would throw one more pitch to Ethier, the pitch that could end the inning, or not.

“He was trying to get a ball down and away to me,” Ethier would say.

“Throwing strikes was priority No. 1,” Happ would say.

“It just didn’t look good out of his hand,” Ethier would say.

“There’s no excuse,” Happ would say.

The fastball, 94 mph, was low.

“I was tempted to swing the whole time,” Ethier would say. “Something held me back.”

Ethier took the walk. Russell Martin(notes) scored the run. The Dodgers led 2-1. And Manny Ramirez(notes), who in the series had run into a changeup and that was all, popped out to end the inning. Broxton indeed would come in, would get the first two outs on ground balls, then have Utley hit a low fly ball to right field, out of the shadows and into the sun, Ethier chasing it to his right, taking it in the glove before it broke his nose.

The crowd roared. Broxton pumped his fist. Ethier grinned.

“Now we’re here,” Martin said. “It changes everything.”

And while Ethier pulled off his sweaty uniform and shoved his road grays into a duffel bag and listened to Torre compliment the Dodgers on their character, Ethier stopped himself and took a breath.

The game, it just wouldn’t end.

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Oct 16, 2009