PHOENIX (AP) — Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier played all of last season with a balky right knee that was constantly aching and always on his mind.
He still managed to make his second consecutive All-Star team, win a Gold Glove and come within a game of tying Willie Davis’ franchise record 31-game hitting streak before undergoing season-ending knee surgery in mid-September.
So, imagine what he could do now that he’s healthy and feeling fine as he enters a contract year.
Don Mattingly is doing just that. The Dodgers manager figures Ethier’s pop at the plate could return in a very big way in 2012.
Ethier’s 11 homers last year were his fewest since his rookie year in 2006 and 20 fewer than he hit in 2009 before injuries took their toll. He had 23 in 2010, when he was hampered by a broken pinkie and his bothersome right knee.
When Mattingly watches Ethier take cuts now, he sees better balance and a more compact swing.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen is square. And I don’t know how to describe that other than his attack points and his contact points are square to those spots,” Mattingly said.
That’s important because Ethier’s able to drive pitches like he used to.
“Square creates backspin,” Mattingly said. “Backspin creates power.”
Ethier, who is 5 for 8 with four RBIs in four spring training games, had a scheduled day off Sunday after getting scratched from the lineup Saturday with stiffness in his lower back. Mattingly plans to play him Monday against the Angels in Tempe.
“We will be a little cautious though. If he’s not feeling like he’s really ready to let it go tomorrow, there’s no reason to rush it,” Mattingly said.
Ethier described it as back spasms and not a muscle strain and said that if this were the regular season, he’d be playing through it.
After all, he played most of the last two seasons with his right knee constantly barking at him.
He said he felt like he was always stepping into the batter’s box with one strike because he wasn’t well and didn’t feel he was capable of driving the ball.
“It felt every day like a constant bruise.” Ethier said. “I’d feel a pinch in there every time I’d twist or do something. It was just annoying. It wasn’t painful to where I couldn’t play every day but just painful enough that it was a constant reminder.”
Now, his body is better and his mind is at ease again.
“I think if you feel confident in your game and your body and your mechanics and you can trust it, that’s as good as it gets right there,” Ethier said. “That’s all I want to ask for, if I can go up there and know I’m healthy all the way, I have a better chance of executing than if I wasn’t.
“I’m feeling good, I’m feeling confident, I’m feeling strong,” he added.
He hadn’t felt this way in a long time, having missed 60 games the last two seasons combined.
Last year, he was mostly affected by his knee issues in the batter’s box, although “it was just running, doing everything. There’s obviously a lot of less rotating out in the field than when you’re hitting, so I think I was a little less affected. But every pitch, every swing …”
Ethier doesn’t look at last season as a total loss. Although the Dodgers didn’t do well in the standings, he said the lesson he learned was perseverance.
“You’ve just got to go out there and figure out sometimes how to battle through things,” he said. “You’re not going to feel great the whole year. That’s the thing you hear from baseball players is the first day of spring training is probably the only day you’re going to feel 100 percent.
“You learn a lot about your limitations and what you can handle through times like that,” Ethier said.
Ethier agrees with his manager that he’ll have more power again but said he never goes into a season with specific numbers in mind.
“Just how can I help this team win on a daily basis, that’s all my focus is,” he said. “It’s really that finite. It’s nothing long-term. Each day is new and each day’s different and it’s not tomorrow yet, so I’ve got to worry about today.”
Follow AP Sports Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.