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Health is key for the Dodgers

Andre Ethier appears to be regaining his form after a broken pinkie, Manny Ramirez and Rafael Furcal suffered first-half setbacks, and the Dodgers remain in the thick of the NL West race.

July 14, 2010|By Dylan Hernandez

Reporting from St. Louis — Why can't I get that feeling back? Andre Ethier kept asking himself that question last month, sensing the 2½ weeks he spent on the disabled list had taken something away from him.

Ethier was leading the National League in all three triple crown categories when he was diagnosed with a fractured pinkie finger in mid-May. When he returned, he was missing pitches he used to hit and his average was dipping.

But as the Dodgers prepared to come out of the All-Star break Thursday with the first of four games in St. Louis, Manager Joe Torre was ready to make a declaration about his All-Star right fielder.

"I think he's back to where he was," Torre said.

Ethier was among several key Dodgers to land on the disabled list in the first half of the season.

Manny Ramirez had two separate stints on the DL because of strained leg muscles, the most recent of which is expected to come to an end today. All-Star shortstop Rafael Furcal was sidelined three weeks because of a strained hamstring.

Opening-day starter Vicente Padilla was out for almost two months because of nerve problems in his throwing arm. Chad Billingsley was on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

The bench was also hit. Backup catcher Brad Ausmus is recovering from back surgery in April.

Nonetheless, the Dodgers come out of the break trailing the National League West-leading San Diego Padres by only two games.

For Ethier, the experience led to discoveries. He was batting .392 with 11 home runs and 38 runs batted in when injured. He then batted .220 with only one home run in his first 27 games after being activated.

"It's not just the feeling, the confidence and the mental side, but also the physical side," Ethier said. "I was trying to come back right away and be the hitter I was right before I got hurt instead of focusing on the small things."

Ethier eventually hit his way out of the slump. In the 10 games leading into the break, he batted .390 with two home runs and seven RBIs. He was one for two in the All-Star game with a sharp single.

"I'm definitely better now," he said. "But it wasn't fun going through it."

A summary of where Ethier and the Dodgers are now — and might be going:

First-half surprise

John Ely and Carlos Monasterios combining for seven wins. As much talk as there was about how the pitching staff underperformed, it could have been worse. A lot worse.

While Ely was demoted to triple A last week and Monasterios was placed on the disabled list in June, they were significant upgrades over the Dodgers' original fifth starter, Charlie Haeger. The two rookies had never pitched above double A until this year, but they helped the Dodgers get through a rough patch when Billingsley and Padilla were hurt.

First-half disappointment

The Dodgers, who had the lowest bullpen earned-run average of any team in the majors last season, rank 12th this year.

Right-hander Ronald Belisario started slowly after arriving late to spring training — he had visa problems in his native Venezuela — and recently left to undergo substance-abuse treatment. Left-hander George Sherrill, who had an ERA of 0.65 in his two months with the Dodgers last season, has a 7.34 ERA. Ramon Troncoso has been sent to the minor leagues.

Torre appears comfortable using only three of his relievers in tight ballgames — closer Jonathan Broxton, left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo and right-hander Jeff Weaver.

At this pace

James Loney will drive in 116 runs. Overshadowed by his more flamboyant teammates, Loney might have been the Dodgers' most valuable player in the first half of the season.

Though he has only six home runs, Loney is batting .309 and has driven in a team-best 63 runs. He has appeared in all 88 of the Dodgers' games and his 84 starts ties him for the most on the team with Matt Kemp.

Reasons for excitement

Almost everything that could go wrong in the first half did go wrong — and the Dodgers are still 10 games over .500.

Billingsley and Padilla have pitched well lately. If they stay healthy and Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda remain steady, the Dodgers would have four solid starters.

The Dodgers have been dominant in their meetings with NL West teams — their 23-6 record within their division is the best in baseball.

Reasons for concern

The Dodgers have what is probably the toughest schedule of any team in the majors over the remainder of the season. Of their final 74 games, 58 are against teams with records above .500. No other team in the majors has more than 47.

Because of the age and injury histories of some of their players — Ramirez is 38, Furcal 32, Kuroda 35 and Casey Blake 36 —the Dodgers' ability to stay healthy remains a question.

Moves to ponder

The Dodgers need pitching, but they won't spend the money to acquire Roy Oswalt and they don't have the prospects to land Dan Haren.

At this point, General Manager Ned Colletti probably would settle for anyone who could bring stability to the bullpen or back end of the rotation.

See you in October

The first-place Padres can pitch, but they can't hit. The same is true of the fourth-place San Francisco Giants. Therefore, the most significant obstacle between the Dodgers and their third consecutive NL West title appears to be the Colorado Rockies.

Like the Dodgers, the Rockies were hit by a wave of injuries. Like the Dodgers, they're getting healthy. And, like the Dodgers, they're two games out of first place.

Health probably will determine who emerges on top. Colletti's ability to add an arm or two is the other key factor.

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