LOS ANGELES -- It was about two weeks ago that Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake decided to grow the beard he had shaved off over the winter, not only because certain fans were imploring him from the stands to do so but also because the team wasn't playing well at the time and Blake figured a little facial hair might change the Dodgers' luck. It was around that time that they began what is now a nine-game winning streak, their longest in four years.
On Tuesday night, Blake brought back something else that had been missing, and that also helped the Dodgers in a big way.
Specifically, his bat.
The previously slumping Blake, who had been increasingly, visibly frustrated in recent days while seemingly making out after out after out, broke out in a huge way in leading the Dodgers to their latest triumph, 7-3 over the Houston Astros before a crowd of 55,662 that came to Dodger Stadium for Andre Ethier Bobblehead Night.
Blake delivered a two-out, run-scoring single in the first inning to cap a three-run rally, giving him a key RBI hit in the opening inning for a second consecutive evening. He followed with another hit, this one poked through the right side of the infield, following a leadoff walk to James Loney in the fourth, putting Loney on third and setting up a tiebreaking, sacrifice fly by Jamey Carroll that put the Dodgers ahead to stay.
Finally, after grounding to third to end the fifth and strand a runner in scoring position, Blake came up one last time with two outs in the eighth, the Dodgers leading by three and closer Jonathan Broxton warming up for the ninth. Blake made sure Broxton wouldn't be needed, although before taking a seat, Broxton probably could have stood on the mound and caught the ball Blake deposited into the bullpen off Jeff Fulchino.
It was Blake's first home run since he hit two April 24 at Washington, and it also was his first three-hit performance since that same game.
Blake's slump, which had dropped his average to a benign .233, began April 27, the day the Dodgers lost both ends of a twi-night doubleheader at New York. From that day through Monday, he went 8-for-59 (.136), striking out 18 times in 72 plate appearances.
Although there were times when he appeared flummoxed by his misfortune -- such as when he abruptly turned and stormed back to the dugout after striking out in his final at-bat Monday night -- Blake, who is 36 and has a little more than 11 years in the big leagues, said he was able to lean on experience to maintain a somewhat even emotional keel.
"I talked to my wife a little bit about it," he said. "I was pretty cool, actually. It helped that we kept winning. It was frustrating for me. It's always frustrating. But I have already gone down the path where I sit up in bed at night and just brood over it and drive myself crazy and lose a lot of sleep over my lack of success. I tried that route. But hopefully, you get a little smarter with age. I just tried to stay confident and patient and know things are going to turn around and I'm going to come out of this thing."
Actually, the first sign that it might be starting to come around had come in Blake's first at-bat Monday. It wasn't especially pretty, but it was exactly the kind of hit that a slumping player sometimes needs just to build off. Against Houston's Wandy Rodriguez, Blake lunged awkwardly at a pitch that appeared to be about six inches off the outside corner and punched it just inside first base past a diving Lance Berkman and up the right-field line for a two-out, two-run double that gave the Dodgers a 3-1 lead they would never relinquish.
"That was a peach right there," Blake said after Tuesday's game. "I'll take it, though. Over the last couple of weeks, I have squared some balls up that have gotten caught. I'm not saying I deserve anything, but it all evens out. I'll take a hundred of those hits."
There is a T-shirt that has been popping up around the ballpark lately -- Blake said Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp actually has one -- that reads, In Beard We Trust. Well, the beard is back. And if Blake can continue to build off what he has done over the past two games, the trust will quickly follow.
Don't be surprised if veteran infielder Alfredo Amezaga finds his way onto the Dodgers' roster within the next few weeks. Amezaga, whom the Dodgers signed to a minor league contract Feb. 2 knowing that he wouldn't be fully recovered from microfracture surgery on his left knee until late spring, played in his first game in 366 days on Monday night when he went 2-for-2 with a walk in three plate appearances for Double-A Chattanooga.
Amezaga was held out of the lineup Tuesday night at Mobile because of inclement weather that led to multiple delays and eventually to the game being called after six innings.
Amezaga, 32, spent the past four seasons with the Florida Marlins, but he missed most of last year with the knee problem. His contract with the Dodgers contains two escape clauses if he isn't in the majors, the first of which he can exercise June 15 and the second of which triggers a month later. Given the time, effort and resources the Dodgers have put into his rehab, they aren't likely to let him get away.
The versatile Amezaga has played every position in his career except pitcher and catcher. He will receive a prorated share of a $650,000 base salary for any time he spends on the active, major league roster, and his contract also contains several incentives based on plate appearances and games played.
Quote of the Day
"It's a middle-of-the-order bat. It's obvious his ability to hit in the clutch is well above average. He will be missed in some of those areas. But it also will present an opportunity for somebody else to play a little bit and get some time." -- Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti on losing hot-hitting right fielder Andre Ethier indefinitely because of a broken little finger on his right hand, an injury that led to the Dodgers placing Ethier on the 15-day disabled list before Tuesday night's game.
The Dodgers open a two-game series with the San Diego Padres, the same team they swept in a three-game set last weekend at Petco Park. The pitching matchup is a rematch of last Friday night, when Dodgers right-hander Ramon Ortiz (1-1, 5.40) made his first major league start since May 26, 2007, against Padres righty Jon Garland (4-2, 1.88). Ortiz gave the Dodgers just four-plus innings, but he pitched well enough to keep them in a game they eventually won, 4-3, on Matt Kemp's two-run homer off Luke Gregerson after the Dodgers chased Garland from the game by driving up his pitch count.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com