MARYVALE, Ariz. Andre Ethier is preparing for his 12th season in a Dodgers uniform with a greater appreciation for the rites of spring, a renewed eagerness for the start of a new season and an understanding of how easily it can all be taken away.
“I think it’s everything,” Ethier said of his different emotions this spring. “You’re at this point in your career and – let’s be honest I sit around and watch the transactions and what’s going on in baseball these days. Thirty-five-year-olds aren’t getting too many opportunities these days, let alone good opportunities to keep playing and when you get those games taken away from you especially when I don’t feel it was a wear-and-tear injury, it wasn’t something where I was broken down – it’s tough.
“I was actually feeling really good at the time, felt like I was building off of a good year the year before and was playing at a really high level again. For something like that to take games away – that’s tough.”
Ethier, who will turn 35 during the Dodgers’ first trip of the regular season, had all but 16 games in September taken away from him last season. A foul ball off his shin in a spring training game on March 18 left a spiral fracture in his tibia and he spent most of last season waiting for the fracture to heal.
That wait didn’t truly end until December.
“Once the season ended, I really only had one little bump in the road where I kind of took a little misstep and it kind of bit me there,” Ethier said. “That was in December. Since then, I went through my usual six weeks of training here in Phoenix and did everything from my jumping, cutting, running the bases full out. – even getting on the ground and popping up in awkward positions.
“I came into this not wanting to think about it or use it as anything that would hold me back from just a normal spring training.”
As far as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts is concerned, he sees no signs of last year’s injury when he watches Ethier go through drills.
“Absolutely not. He looks like the same guy I saw in camp last year,” Roberts said. “Mentally, physically, he’s in a great place.The way he’s swinging the bat right now he looks good, strong. The ball is coming off the bat really well. “(If you didn’t know he missed almost an entire season), you wouldn’t know any different.”
Before Ethier was injured last March, he was one of the Dodgers’ best spring hitters and Roberts was considering him as a candidate to bat leadoff against right-handed pitching because of “his ability to conduct an at-bat.” He is in that same mix this year.
There is another déjà-vu feeling for Ethier. Eight players are jockeying for position and playing time in the Dodgers’ outfield.
“I think if you cut and paste any article from the last five years with my name and the new names that come in you can probably write the same article with the same storyline over and over,” Ethier joked. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aware of it. But the only thing I worry about is just me being able to play the way I want to play.”
Left-hander Rich Hill made his first start of the spring but his curveball looked to be in midseason form.
“It’s good because you can start that creative process earlier. That was there today and that was nice,” Hill said after striking out two in his two hitless innings. “Working ahead of hitters, first-pitch strikes is something that is a must moving forward.”
Hill’s curveball is one of the best in baseball and, while other pitchers struggle to find an effective breaking pitch, his seems to come naturally. Jokingly asked if he could throw a curveball when he rolls out of bed Hill acknowledged that “I’ve been pretty fortunate to be able to spin a baseball” since he started playing baseball.
“A lot of people ask when we’re talking about the curveball – can it be taught?” Hill said. “You can’t really teach a guy to throw 95 mph. But I think you can teach someone, if they have a feel for spin, you can teach them how to improve a breaking ball.
“But for me, I’ve always been able to do that. I’ve been fortunate in that regards. But today was a good day with the breaking ball.”
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