LOS ANGELES -- Andre Ethier, outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, has been one of the most overlooked players in the major leagues for years. His output has been often ignored in favor of his limitations, his contract prematurely labeled an albatross, his name frequenting trade rumors despite the Dodgers lacking a real replacement for him.
So perhaps it's not surprising that on a day Ethier returned to the lineup, playing on an injured ankle, that most of the focus from fans and media alike went toward ... Hanley Ramirez, playing with a fractured rib.
"You know about the Kirk Gibson homer, right?" asked one media member among the throng of 25 who surrounded Ramirez when Game 3 was over, the Dodgers 3-0 winners, very much back in the NLCS they trail to the Cardinals 2-1.
Meanwhile, I spoke to Ethier, largely left alone as he dressed. He'd gone 0-for-4, but made three putouts in center field. There's little question that a healthy Ethier is far superior as an option to Skip Schumaker, particularly for a Dodgers team in need of offense.
Accordingly, the mere fact that Ethier so easily slid the foot of his injured ankle into a striped sock, then a tan, ankle-length boot, was itself an encouraging sign.
"One we got out there, going, jogging out there's a discomfort, but it goes away when you lock in on that pitch," Ethier said of how much he thought about the injury. "Just going after the ball, making a play."
That alone mattered greatly for this Dodgers team, even as Ramirez, and Yasiel Puig's effervescent triple got most of the attention.
One man who realizes Ethier's importance is Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, an unlikely champion for Ethier. Back in May, with the team struggling and Mattingly seemingly hours from being fired, the manager announced he was benching Ethier. His comment at the time: "All grit and no talent isn't going to make you successful. But all talent and no grit is not going to get you there, either."
But the mere mention of Ethier's name on Monday afternoon sent Mattingly into an extended soliloquy about Ethier's value to the team.
"Well no question, he gets lost in the shuffle a little bit," Mattingly said of Ethier. "Some big names, and 'Dre's probably not the household name, nationwide, although on the West Coast, people get a pretty good idea of what kind of player he's been over the years. But the second half, this guy's resurgence was just as big a part of what's gone on, how we got here."
Consider that Ethier was asked to play center field, a need created by Matt Kemp's injuries, after logging a total of nine innings there in his major league career. He not only put up respectable defensive numbers, he also posted the seventh-best OPS+ of any center fielder in the league.
"His numbers might not be what they've been in the past, but the second half, he's been one of our leading guys," Mattingly said.
The thing is, Ethier's numbers were what they've been in the past, almost exactly. He's not hitting lefties, and he never has. Even so, his OPS+ in 2013 was 122. In 2012? 123. In 2011? 121. For his career? 123. In fact, dating back to 2008, only four outfielders have played in 800 or more games while putting up a better OPS+ than Ethier's 127 over that span: Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday, Jayson Werth and the man Ethier replaced, Matt Kemp.
It's probably worth noting, given how frequently Ethier is cited for being overpaid, that Ethier will make less than any of these four outfielders over the life of their current contracts.
"He's pretty much giving us that other piece," Mattingly continued. "He definitely gets overshadowed a bit, and we've missed him. The kind of defense he played for us in center field, with Matt being out, I think it's overshadowed how good he was out there. He kind of solidified us, defensively. We were in a little bit of disarray, because it was like, who's gonna play center, and all of a sudden, Andre just took it over."
It's true. He managed a -4.7 UZR/150 this season, which is awfully good for a guy who hadn't played the position regularly in an eight year career. And his conversion was vital for this Dodgers team, with backup Schumaker checking in at -12.8 UZR/150. Plan C is Scott Van Slyke, whose dad played center field, but he doesn't. Ethier is a vital offensive cog, but he's also an irreplaceable defensive contributor to this particular roster.
Even though he's been so valuable this year, the trade rumors continue. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe said on Monday that the Dodgers will make Kemp and Ethier available this winter. Then Cafardo went on to talk about why teams would take a chance on Kemp.
But that's for after the season. For now, Ethier simply needs to get back on the field and perform as well as he can. Just as he learned to play a major league center field on the fly, now he's trying to figure out how to hit major league pitching without the same strength in his ankle.
"I can't get quite back on my back side like I want to," Ethier said. "But it's still, just, figuring out a way to get a good pitch, put a good swing on it. Really, it's just going out there, and figuring out what you're capable of doing. If it's to pinch-hit, if it's playing defense, and if it's providing another bat in the lineup, things change over the course of a game, it's really just figuring out what that at-bat calls for."
Speaking Monday night, he just didn't know how his injured ankle would respond on Tuesday. After missing the NLDS, he played in Game 1 Friday, but was scratched from the lineup prior to Game 2 on Saturday after testing it in the outfield.
"We went out and warmed up, and typical stuff, make sure I could run, and it wasn't happening," Ethier said of Saturday. "And that's when a decision was made, best not to go out there, and play defense, and possibly not help the team."
His concern over not knowing how he'd feel from one day to the next at this vital time in the season was evident. He said he planned the same regimen on Tuesday, and he didn't know how it would go. But he was hopeful.
"I feel a lot better than I did after that game," Ethier said, breaking into a smile. "I think the outcome helps a little bit, too."