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Kemp, Ethier haven't yet reached peak

Kemp, Ethier haven't yet reached peak

LOS ANGELES -- Most teams hope for one young player to post a breakout offensive season.

The Dodgers this year had two. Andre Ethier led the club with 31 homers, 106 RBIs, 42 doubles and a .508 slugging percentage. Matt Kemp had 26 homers, 101 RBIs, 34 stolen bases and just missed hitting .300 at .297.

The Dodgers haven't had a pair combine for that many home runs since Adrian Beltre and Shawn Green in 2004. They haven't had two outfielders combine for that many homers or RBIs in the same season as Green and Gary Sheffield in 2001.

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Dodgers at a glance
2009 record: 95-67
2008 record: 84-78
NL West champs
NL best record
NLCS matchup:
Phillies at Dodgers
Postseason tix: Buy now

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
Loney: Taking good swings
Kuo: Long road back
Thome: Back in Philly
Loney: Building resume
Bullpen: Led by Broxton
Torre: Rep precedes him
Blake: Chemistry guy
Kershaw: Game 1 nod?
Dodgers: Eyes on prize
Kemp: Path of the pros
Furcal: Back healthy
Kershaw: Like Koufax
Hudson: Keeping head up
Billingsley: Unknown role
Ethier: Slump over
Torre: Tough decisions
Kershaw: Elite comparisons
Kemp: Nearly elite
Kershaw: Path to the pros
Billingsley: Fate in balance
Ethier: Aims to improve
Torre: Back to playoffs
Kershaw: Ready to rock
Rotation: Plenty of options
Kemp: Chasing LA history
Bullpen: Dominant pair
Honeycutt: Pitching guru
Kemp: Tools to match talent
Ethier: Walk-off wonder
Billingsley: Vying for spot
Ethier/Kemp: Dynamic duo
Torre: Another pennant race
Pierre: Receives high praise
Kershaw: Beyond his years

And as Wednesday's Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals draws near, Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly thinks the pair can do better.

Ethier never hit more than 18 homers in a Minor League season, but he's progressed from 11 to 13 to 20 to 31 in four Major League seasons. He hit two bad stretches this year -- immediately after Manny Ramirez started a 50-game drug suspension, and a 1-for-27 funk on the last trip of the season. And he's struggled against lefties. Curiously, as his home runs have increased, his average against lefties has decreased from .351 to .279 to .243 to .194.

"I don't see the last trip as anything more than a bump in the road," said Mattingly. "Sometimes it's who you're matching up against. The nine games of that trip, we faced five left-handed starters, a couple coming from a tough angle, and they present different problems to a left-handed hitter, because left-handed hitters don't see as many left-handed starters. Right-handed hitters see right-handed starters their whole lives. Andre can hit left-handers. I'm sure left-handed pitchers are approaching him differently than they did a couple years ago, with a lot more caution and care."

Mattingly thinks mastering opposing pitchers isn't as big a challenge for Ethier as mastering his emotions.

"I don't mind when he gets mad and fights himself, but when he lets it affect his next at-bat and the next at-bat," he said. "Andre gets into trouble when he lets it affect the rest of the day. You can't give away at-bats. You give away an at-bat every game, it starts adding up to a lot of at-bats. You can't disconnect from the game."

Mattingly suggests that Kemp might have a higher ceiling.

"Matt has been unbelievable, and I think there's more there," he said. "He has a good understanding of what the pitcher is trying to do to him and he's closed some holes. He's laying off some balls that he swung at last year and he's become harder to pitch to. He's learned that when he's ahead in the count, he can be more aggressive. You shrink the strike zone when the count's in your favor."

Mattingly compares Kemp to former Yankees teammate and Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.

"He can do everything in the game, a lot like Dave Winfield," he said. "He can run, hit for power and average, he's a great outfielder, he can steal a bag. You're asking this guy to do so much, but talent-wise, he's got that ability. You hope he keeps getting better, even though that's a lot to live up to. The great players really want to keep getting better. He's already a great player, but there's more there, and I say that out of respect. That's not a knock on what he's done so far. He can just get better and some of that may be in ways that don't necessarily show up numbers-wise."

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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