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Mammoth season has spotlight finding Ethier

Mammoth season has spotlight finding Ethier

SAN DIEGO -- If getting walked intentionally because the opposition would rather pitch to Manny Ramirez isn't proof enough that Andre Ethier has become a prime-time player, now ESPN is including the Dodgers right fielder in its clever "SportsCenter" ad campaign starring elite athletes.

"I don't know," said Ethier, "I'd rather stay under the radar."

It's too late for that when your name and Triple Crown are being written in the same sentence, when your employer shifts the marketing focus to make you the face of the franchise, when an opposing coach says:

"He's pretty clutch."

That's not just any opposing coach. That's Kirk Gibson, and he knows clutch.

"What did [Ethier] have, six walk-offs last year? OK, he'll have it forever," predicts the man who hit the most legendary lights-out homer in Dodgers history, now Arizona's bench coach with aspirations of managing.

"Baseball is an affirmation of life experiences. He's dealt with pressure and felt the emotion, and his brain has developed a picture of who he is and what he can do. A comfort zone develops over time with these experiences.

"I remember hitting my first clutch homer -- I was 17 in American Legion and we were out of pitchers. It was grim. Same thing playing the A's in the World Series and I stumbled out there. Define clutch? That's hard to do. It's a belief in yourself more than anything. And this guy is hitting .390. I couldn't hit like that, but I had a picture in my mind of what I was going to do.

"You can cower from that situation, when you know some people expect you to fail. Some do. But I used to love it when I'd go 0-for-4 and fans would get all over me and I'd know, 'You're laughing now, but I'll get you next time, and when I do, I can't wait to see the look on your face.' That's how it was for me. You have to want to be the guy.

NL Triple Crown leaders
The National League's leaders in the three Triple Crown categories (through Thursday's games):
Batting Average
Andre Ethier .385
Ryan Braun .359
Carlos Ruiz .345
Jayson Werth .345
Marlon Byrd .341
Home Runs
Andre Ethier 11
Kelly Johnson 10
Mark Reynolds 10
Rod Barajas 9
Runs Batted In
Andre Ethier 37
Casey McGehee 32
Jorge Cantu 29
Ryan Braun 28
Jason Heyward 28

"To this day, I'll be some place and a game will be on, and it'll be a crucial situation and somebody will blurt out that they wouldn't want to be in that guy's spot. But me, I'm so jealous. I'd love it. It's how you look at it."

Ethier, who at age 28 is in his fifth Major League season, looks at it a little differently, claiming his success followed repeated failures in pressure situations at lower levels.

"You have to be somebody who wants to be in that situation, who wants the ball or wants the at-bat, who wants the responsibility and outcome to fall on them," Ethier said. "You realize the pressure and the magnitude of the moment, but I just think some guys can block out the moments of failure and look at the success part of it, and that's what drives them."

After leading the Major Leagues with six walk-off hits last year, he already has two this year -- a 10th-inning single to beat Arizona on April 15 and the bottom-of-the-ninth grand slam to beat Milwaukee on May 6.

Now when Ethier comes to bat at home with the game on the line, the congregation at Dodger Stadium rises in anticipation.

"I feel the energy when I walk to the plate," Ethier said. "But once I'm in the box, I get locked in on the at-bat and focus on the pitcher and what he's going to throw and shut out everything else."

But there's more to Ethier than the walk-offs, as rewarding as they are. He is leading the NL in all three Triple Crown categories, with a .385 average, 11 homers and 37 RBIs. The trifecta has been accomplished only 16 times in MLB history. Carl Yastrzemski was the last in 1967, and nobody's done it in the National League since Joe Medwick in '37.

No Dodger has done it and there haven't been many near-misses either. In Los Angeles history, only four players -- Adrian Beltre, Mike Piazza, Pedro Guerrero and Steve Garvey -- have even finished in the top 10 in all three categories in the same season.

When the Dodgers rewarded Ethier for last year's breakout season (.272-31-106) with a two-year, $15.25 million contract that doesn't cover his final arbitration-eligible season, many wondered why they didn't lock him up longer.

Nonetheless, you don't hear anybody from the club complaining that it's not getting its money's worth.

"Every once in a while, you see a player whose career spikes for a year, then he disappears. His career just keeps getting better," said general manager Ned Colletti.

"It comes with experience, it comes with confidence and wanting to be great. I think that there are some players that are afraid of being great, and all that it entails, the responsibility that comes with it. He's getting more comfortable with who he is and he's not afraid or shying away from the expectations."

It's hard to be shy with his growing visibility. Along with the ESPN commercial, there will be an Ethier Bobblehead Night on Tuesday, and action figure and poster giveaways later in the year. He's on the cover of the club media guide, the newest Dodgers Playbill stadium newsletter and he's been approached by GQ Magazine, which earlier featured a Matt Kemp photo shoot.

The club hasn't minded capitalizing on Ethier's popularity with the ladies, even though he's a husband and father. As many women as men are buying the "Today was a Good 'Dre" T-shirts being sold at the stadium.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to the basics.

"You can't make yourself what he was blessed with -- that swing," said manager Joe Torre. "He has the ability to let the ball get deeper and still drive it. You wish you could bottle it. He has to work at it, but there is a gift. The timing, the strength, the quickness and putting it all together. Andre is blessed with the ability to hit. It's not how high you go, it's how often you do it. That's what I look for. It's about doing it over and over, about repeating it and being that guy you can count on. You see the development. He still goes through little tantrums. Paul O'Neill did until the day he retired. That's not a detriment. The more he does this stuff, the more he expects to do it. He's a special talent."

And maybe someday, someone will ask him to compare the latest clutch phenom to himself.

"I was only 6 when [Gibson] hit that home run and I didn't see it, but I see it every night at Dodger Stadium," he said. "Wouldn't it be nice to get that opportunity in that big moment and come through? It would be neat. As you can tell from that one home run, defining moments like those are few and far between."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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