PHOENIX -- In a strange way, one of the keys to the Dodgers' success last season was the uncertainty over Manny Ramirez, according to one of those responsible for the success. "With all that happened last year -- not knowing in Spring Training if we'd have him or not, the suspension -- the guys started saying that with Manny or without him, we can win and we have to win," said Andre Ethier. "So he gets suspended after the first month when our confidence was very high, and it was a setback, a detour. We had to re-evaluate how to address it and fill the void. Guys had to step up. And we quickly realized we could get it done without him if we didn't have him.
"I think that short time in Spring Training when we didn't have him helped us when we lost him. We had guys that had to fill roles we didn't think we'd have to fill. You learn a lot about yourself when that happens." Of course, Ethier said the Dodgers learned a lot about themselves by being eliminated from the playoffs by the Phillies in back-to-back Octobers. He believes -- even after a winter in which there was no impact acquisition -- they have the talent to win a World Series but need to be tougher when a ring is within grasp. "We've just got to hold on to that feeling we had against the Cubs two years ago and the Cardinals last year. We just kind of let that feeling of winning slip away because of one game, or one out, instead of staying in the moment," he said. "People can say, 'We need this pitcher' or 'We need that bat.' But to say we didn't have enough talent to win the last two years is making excuses. We've got the talent to win with what we had. To be that close, one out or one game away -- we just can't lose the feeling and the emotion like we did. When things go wrong, you have to rebound and come back and play through the series instead of letting down. "Sometimes you can sense that you're almost looking for something to go wrong. I'm not saying you don't expect to win, but you know in the back of your mind that failure is a realistic outcome and you have to just block that out." Manager Joe Torre talks about the poised player knowing how to "slow the game down" when in that moment. Ethier knows the drill. Ethier led the Major Leagues last year with six walk-off hits, including an MLB-leading four walk-off homers that tied the Major League record also held by Jimmie Foxx (1940) and Roy Sievers (1957). His 22 homers at Dodger Stadium are a Los Angeles single-season record for a left-handed hitter. His cool with the game on the line led to career highs with 31 homers, 42 doubles, 106 RBIs, 72 walks, 92 runs and 160 games played. He was sixth in the league in RBIs, tied for fifth in doubles. He became just the fourth Dodgers player with at least 30 homers and 40 doubles, joining Babe Herman (1930), Raul Mondesi (1997) and Eric Karros (1999). Ethier had six multi-homer games -- one with three homers -- and of his 31 homers, 18 gave the Dodgers a tie or lead. He was twice named National League Player of the Week. The Dodgers rewarded Ethier with a two-year, $15.25 million contract, dousing any doubts the 27-year-old had about the club's confidence in him. "Any time a team guarantees that kind of money, it's an investment and an acknowledgment and a commitment to the player," said Ethier. "It makes you realize as a player that there is that belief in you and a reliance on you and there are expectations to perform." Ethier shares the expectations. "My goal in Spring Training is to win a starting job. My drive is the same, like it is every year," he said. "I don't care what I did last year. I've got to prove it to everybody all over again, and I've prepared the same way I did before I signed. I'll come in mentally thinking I have a lot to prove and to achieve. It's not a situation where you can get complacent just because you had a good year or because you signed a two-year deal. That isn't the right way -- to come in knowing you have a job and all that. You have to keep proving yourself." Ethier knows he must prove his ability to hit left-handed pitching. His overall numbers might have obscured the fact that he batted .194 against lefties compared to .302 against righties, continuing a steady reversal from his first Major League season in 2006, when he hit .351 against lefties and .298 against righties. "I got a little out of whack and started pressing when I couldn't figure things out to correct it," Ethier said. "I just have to be confident and actually try to do less, not try to do more. I've been successful in the past against left-handed pitching. I have to focus on what's at hand, not get frustrated, just let go of the anxiety." As for not acquiring an impact player over the winter, Ethier thinks a recharged Ramirez could accomplish the same thing. "I think the second half for Manny, there was an accumulation of things, a lot of reasons for what happened," he said of Ramirez, whose power numbers dropped after he was hit on the wrist by a pitch. "It's a lot to expect him to come back the same after the way he ended the year before. There were some real high expectations after the way he played after the trade [in 2008], and I'm sure he put too much on himself, and a lot of people put too much on him to make up for it. "I hope after this offseason, Manny comes back to where everyone knows he can be and help the team get back to where it can be. I want to see the Manny I've watched and followed and really love to be around. If this is Manny's last year in L.A., I hope it's a good one for him and for us and for the whole organization."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.