Ethier uncanny in the clutch
His latest walk-off hit, a grand slam, adds to his lore as the Dodgers salvage a victory
LOS ANGELES -- Other than for statistical and record-keeping purposes, it really didn't matter that the ball carried over the center-field fence. It was clear from the moment it left the bat it would carry far enough at a time when all the Dodgers needed was a sacrifice fly. But in retrospect, the ball had to carry over the fence. This, after all, was Andre Ethier, this was the bottom of the ninth inning with the score tied and this is what Ethier does in the bottom of the ninth inning in these types of games.
The Dodgers right fielder hit his sixth career walk-off home run Thursday night, a grand slam that gave the club a desperately needed, 7-3 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers before 38,456 at Dodger Stadium.
The win came only after closer Jonathan Broxton couldn't shake off the rust of having not pitched in five days and blew a two-run lead in the top of the ninth.
Those walk-off homers account for just more than half the 11 walk-off hits Ethier now has in his five major league seasons. The blast off Brewers reliever LaTroy Hawkins was part of a 2-for-4 performance for the National League's leading hitter, who extended his hitting streak to seven games, pushed his average to .371 and is now hitting .444 at home this year.
And when it was over, the absurdity of it all wasn't lost on the player in question.
"I don't know what it is," he said. "For some reason, I just keep getting opportunities to go up there in that situation. You may have to look this up, but who else has that many opportunities to win a game like that? I don't know how many it is, but it isn't a lot."
That is the most mind-boggling part of the whole thing. It isn't that Ethier always seems to come through in that situation. It's that Ethier always seems to come up in that situation. This time, it happened after the Dodgers put runners on first and second on singles by Jamey Carroll and Xavier Paul, and Hawkins threw a wild pitch that barely scooted away from catcher Gregg Zaun, allowing Carroll to narrowly slide headfirst into third base after taking a large lead off second. That might or might not have led to Hawkins pitching around Matt Kemp with Ethier on deck, but whatever the reason, Hawkins walked Kemp on a pitch high and tight with a full count. That was a lot that had to happen for Ethier to come to the plate.
But then, really, was there any way Ethier wasn't going to come to the plate in that inning?
"When you're hitting late in the game like that, there is a lot of stuff going through your mind," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "But he does that so often and has had so much success with it that he is just so positive. He has a plan, and he executes it."
Lost in the shuffle
So, whither John Ely?
The rookie right-hander, whose ticket back to Triple-A Albuquerque clearly was punched even before he took the mound against the Brewers, might have pitched well enough to cancel his trip. Then again, he might not have.
After struggling in his first big league start, Ely took the mound for the first time in eight days and dominated for 6 2/3 innings, retiring 16 consecutive batters at one point. He gave up a run and four hits, and struck out seven without a walk. The Dodgers still have two spots in their starting rotation that are basically in flux, filled on a week-to-week basis. And Ely just gave them arguably their best performance by a starting pitcher not named Hiroki Kuroda in more than two weeks.
"I tried to go out there and throw strikes and tried to change speeds," Ely said. "That was our game plan. ... That was the key, especially against such a good-hitting team as that one. If you don't get ahead early [in counts], they will eat you alive."
The thing is, though, the Dodgers will need a roster spot Friday, when they plan to activate veteran reliever Jeff Weaver from the 15-day disabled list. Based on the Dodgers' standard procedure of doing anything and everything to avoid losing a player from the organization, all signs would point to Ely, who still has all his minor league options, being sent back down. But given the way the rotation has struggled all year, Ely's performance would seem to be the kind of thing Torre and general manager Ned Colletti would want to see more of.
"We'll have to meet [Friday] and figure it out," Torre said. "He is the one guy who can be sent down without losing him. But I'm not saying that is the way it's going to be."
If the Dodgers do decide to keep Ely, the only other pitcher who would be the obvious choice to go would be veteran reliever Ramon Ortiz, who has given up runs in seven of his 10 relief appearances but has proved to be a valuable innings eater when the Dodgers have needed it. However, Ortiz, 36, would have to be designated for assignment, and it is highly questionable whether he would accept an outright assignment to the minors at this stage of his career.
One other -- perhaps more likely -- possibility is that some Dodgers pitcher suddenly will turn up with an "injury" no one outside the clubhouse knows about yet and will wind up on the 15-day disabled list. That is another ploy teams sometimes use when a roster spot is needed, especially if someone has some minor, nagging physical ailment he has been pitching through.
Whatever ends up happening, Ely seems ready for it.
"I'll go down there and keep throwing the ball," he said. "I have to keep my focus. I knew coming up here it wasn't definitely a permanent thing by any means. If they send me down, I'm going to compete and try to earn a spot and get back up here."
Yes, Broxton now has blown two of his three save chances this season. But no, that isn't a cause for alarm just yet. For one, the fact that the Dodgers have gotten through 28 games with Broxton getting only three save chances says a lot more about them than it does about him. For another, given that he hadn't pitched in a save situation in 12 days and hadn't pitched in any situation in six days, it was understandable he might be a little rusty.
"That was probably [the reason]," Torre said. "I thought he was throwing good fastballs and a number of sliders. Some of those balls were softly hit. He didn't get beat up by any stretch of the imagination."
Quote of the day
"I didn't know I was supposed to go to second base. I was like, 'Wow, I'm on?' That ended up being a big run. That was like, the sixth at-bat of my professional career. But I'm not complaining about it." -- Ely on his second-inning at-bat, when he came to the plate with a man on second and two outs. He hit a grounder to third, but Casey McGehee's throw was wide and ticked off the glove of first baseman Prince Fielder and wound up in a camera well, allowing Ely to take second and Jamey Carroll to score. Xavier Paul followed with a double, pushing the Dodgers' lead to 3-0.
The Dodgers face the Colorado Rockies for the first time this season Friday night at Dodger Stadium. Kuroda (3-1, 2.08), the Dodgers' most reliable pitcher so far this season, will take the mound against Rockies rookie Esmil Rogers (0-1, 5.63), who will be making his second start of the season after moving into the rotation from the bullpen.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.