Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier is no longer experiencing the knee problems… (Rob Tringali / Getty Images )
Reporting from Phoenix — No longer does Andre Ethier wake up in the morning wondering how his right knee will feel.
Almost six months removed from a minor knee operation, Ethier said he is free of the pain that crippled him last season and drained him of his trademark power.
Ethier hit his first home run of the spring Tuesday, a towering solo shot against Barry Zito in the second inning of the Dodgers' 8-4 loss to the San Francisco Giants at Camelback Ranch.
"It's just you going up there taking hacks and knowing you can take them and not feel twinges here and there, knowing your mechanics are sound, knowing that you've practiced and done the work," Ethier said. "Not sitting there double-guessing yourself because some of the work you've done might not be the best quality because you're compensating for some things."
The change has been noticeable.
"There's a squareness to him right now," Manager Don Mattingly said, explaining that Ethier's improved balance has translated into a more compact stroke.
Ethier made his second consecutive All-Star team last year but was limited to 135 games. He batted .292 with 11 home runs, the fewest since his rookie season in 2006. In his last full season, 2009, he hit 31 home runs.
"Last year, you felt like you stepped in the batter's box with one strike because you don't feel well and you don't feel you're capable of performing the way you're known to be capable of," he said.
Ethier underwent surgery with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
He was able to test his knee in the Dodgers' exhibition opener Monday when he lined a ball down the right-field line and slid into second base for a double.
"What I did in the game yesterday, today, is just a translation of some of the work I've put in this winter and here in spring training," he said.
But Ethier pointed out that he still hasn't played a full game. He played three innings in the field on both Monday and Tuesday.
"It's still a long way to go," he said.
Ethier's home run Tuesday was particularly noteworthy because it came against a left-handed pitcher.
Mattingly did something with the lineup Tuesday that he is considering doing in the regular season: batting Ethier fifth instead of in his usual cleanup spot on days the opposing starting pitcher is a left-hander.
Juan Rivera, a right-handed hitter, batted fourth.
Asked whether he preferred to hit in the same spot every game, Ethier replied, "That's not up to me. Wherever you pencil me in, I'll do it."
Ethier batted .221 against left-handers over the last four seasons. During the same period, he hit .316 against right-handers.
Only one of his home runs last season was against a left-hander. But Ethier downplayed the numbers.
"Too many people look too much into these split stats," he said. "I think I still hit .290 last year. What happened to the whole average? It's the average of the season, not the average of what you hit against guys in day games or night games and submarine guys with the moon up high in the sky."
Mattingly couldn't explain why Ethier had trouble against left-handers. As a rookie, Ethier hit .351 against left-handers and .298 against right-handers.
"It shouldn't be that staggering because it seemed like he hit them good early on," Mattingly said. "Maybe it's been the knee and some injuries that didn't allow him to stay on the ball long enough. To me, he should be at least more competitive against lefties than he was last year."