Andre Ethier riding the momentum
Dodger outfielder's 24-game hitting streak brings him a sense of pride and history
LOS ANGELES -- It started out, as so many things do in life, small.
It was a simple little infield single that a hustling Andre Ethier managed to beat out against San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain in the fourth inning on April 3, and Ethier subsequently would be erased on Matt Kemp's double-play grounder. Thanks to the quick-changing mathematics of opening week, it inflated the slow-starting Ethier's batting average from a lackluster .111 -- he had just one hit in nine previous at-bats -- all the way to .200.
By the end of the day, Ethier would have two more hits to raise his average to .333, the Los Angeles Dodgers would have their first loss of the season in the form of a 10-run pounding by the Giants, and no one who was at Dodger Stadium that day would have any idea what they had just witnessed, as far as Ethier was concerned.
It was the start of the longest April hitting streak in major league history and the longest in any month since 2009. The streak stands at 24 games as Ethier and the Dodgers prepare to open a six-game homestand Friday night when they host the San Diego Padres.
Ethier is hitting .402 (37-for-92) during the streak, including a game-winning, solo homer off Florida Marlins reliever Brian Sanches in the 10th inning on Wednesday that made the Dodgers' long flight home and their first off day in almost three weeks a lot more enjoyable than they otherwise would have been.
But the weird thing about hitting streaks is how random they can be -- how randomly they begin and how randomly they end. The longest one of all time, the 56-game streak by Joe DiMaggio in 1941, was snapped by Cleveland Indians pitchers Al Smith, who had a career record of 99-101, and Jim Bagby, whose career mark was 97-96. Pete Rose's National League-record 44-game streak in 1978 was a casualty of Atlanta Braves hurlers Larry McWilliams (78-90) and Gene Garber (96-113).
Could Padres lefty Clayton Richard, who will take the mound Friday, be one of the guys who ends Ethier's streak? Could Richard combine with a couple of guys from San Diego's outstanding bullpen, say, Mike Adams or Luke Gregerson or Heath Bell, to put a stop to all this?
Perhaps. But unless there is a lopsided game -- such as the 16-4 Braves victory over Rose's Cincinnati Reds on Aug. 1, 1978, that allowed Garber to focus on striking out Rose to end that game and the hitting streak -- that won't be their goal. Hitting streaks aren't like no-hitters, in which the opponent is doing anything possible to break it up. Hitting streaks are more organic, something that happens over the course of time while teams are busy trying to beat each other.
Ethier said that for the most part, opposing pitchers haven't been attacking him any differently as the streak has gotten long enough to gain national attention. Really, the Dodgers have had only a couple of blowouts during the streak -- a 10-1 loss to the Braves on April 19 and a 12-2 win over the Chicago Cubs Friday -- and in each case, Ethier already had gotten his hit long before the game got out of hand.
"I have to tip my hat, especially to [the Marlins]," Ethier said after Wednesday's game. "They are still coming at me and for the most part giving me strikes. They are still giving me an opportunity to swing the bat and keep this going."
There have been a handful of key moments during Ethier's streak:
• On April 3 (Game 2 of the streak) against the Giants, Ethier's lone hit came against Sergio Romo in his final at-bat in the seventh inning, when he singled to drive in the final run of a decisive, four-run rally.
• On April 8 at San Diego (Game 5), Ethier's only hit in five plate appearances was an infield single off Chad Qualls.
• On April 17 against the St. Louis Cardinals (Game 14), he came to the plate to lead off the bottom of the ninth hitless in three at-bats and the Dodgers trailing 1-0. He led off that inning with a double into the right-field corner, then scored on Matt Kemp's walk-off homer.
• On Sunday at Chicago (Game 21), Ethier's streak looked as if it might take on a note of controversy when he was credited with a hit on a ball that was bobbled by Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney in the top of the first inning. Based on replays, the scorer appeared to have ruled correctly, but it still was a play that legitimately could have gone either way. Ethier wouldn't get another hit until the ninth, when he singled sharply to left to end any doubt.
Some other fun facts:
• Ethier always comes to the plate in the first inning because he bats third. Eight times during the streak, he has ended the suspense early with a hit in that at-bat.
• Ethier has nine multiple-hit games during the streak, including four three-hit games. He has nine doubles, three home runs, 14 runs scored and 15 RBIs during the streak.
• Ethier's overall average during the streak has risen from .111 to .380.
Ethier has started every game the Dodgers have played this season. It's tough to give a guy a breather when he is your hottest hitter and you have three other starters who have been out because of injuries at one time or another.
But in the unlikely event Dodgers manager Don Mattingly were to give Ethier a day off during the streak, and if Mattingly then needed Ethier to pinch hit or enter that game defensively, the streak would be put into peril simply because Ethier wouldn't figure to get more than one at-bat -- maybe two.
In that event, by the way, the streak would not end if Ethier were to have no official at-bats, although there is one exception to that rule: If a player has no official at-bats but does have a sacrifice fly, the streak is over. That rule doesn't apply to any other type of plate appearance that doesn't result in an official at-bat (walk, hit batsman, sacrifice bunt).
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Speaking of a day off, Ethier got one Thursday, when the Dodgers didn't have a game for the first time in 20 days. Often during a hitting streak, or any kind of hot streak for that matter, a player hates having an off day because it could interrupt his rhythm.
Not so for Ethier, who welcomed the rest.
"This road trip has been kind of tough to stay focused and keep your energy up with four day games out of six," Ethier said after Wednesday's game, which started a few minutes past noon Miami time. "A 4:30 a.m. wakeup call in California, that was kind of tough this morning. I just have to keep reminding myself of my keys and what I do and just grind it out. I feel locked in, but the last couple of days, I had to figure out a way to keep this going and dig deep and keep playing [through the fatigue]."
The reality is that Ethier has almost no chance to break DiMaggio's record. There is a reason, after all, why it has stood for 70 years. He probably isn't going to catch Rose, either, because even at 24 games, Ethier is barely halfway there. He needs a hit in each of the next four games just to get halfway to DiMaggio's mark.
But Ethier does stand a decent shot of making some Dodgers history. By extending his streak to 24 games Wednesday, he tied outfielder John Shelby for the fifth-longest streak in franchise history. If he gets a hit on Friday, he will tie Paul Lo Duca, Willie Davis and Steve Sax for second place on that list. And if Ethier can get a hit in each of the next eight games -- which is far more daunting than it sounds, given that even an eight-game hitting streak isn't exactly commonplace -- he will surpass Davis' franchise record 31-game streak established in 1969.
"I hear about this organization from all the old-timers, the ones that are around all the time," Ethier said. "You hear all about this franchise and where it has been and what it means to L.A. and what it should mean to L.A. There is a pride in that. I see myself as a Dodger and a person who takes pride in being one. You see those old videos on the board every night. It sort of shows what it means to be an L.A. Dodger and be a fan of the L.A. Dodgers."
It goes without saying, then, what it would mean to Ethier to have the longest hitting streak ever by an L.A. Dodger.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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