Less than five weeks ago, Andre Ethier was under fire as his competitive spirit was questioned publicly by Don Mattingly. On Monday, Ethier was described in far more glowing terms by the Dodgers' manager — "savior," to be exact.
"I can't imagine what we'd be trying to do here if we didn't have him playing some center," Mattingly said.
Ethier has served as the Dodgers' primary center fielder since Matt Kemp was put on the disabled list May 30. He started there for the 18th time this season Monday, when the Dodgers opened a three-game series at home against the San Francisco Giants.
Mattingly made no mention of how Ethier began the game batting .255.
"I think he's been great," Mattingly said. "Maybe he's not quite as fast as some guys out there, but he gets great jumps, he gets really good reads. He's been really good out there."
Kemp will go back to being the Dodgers' everyday center fielder when he returns from the disabled list, Mattingly said. But Mattingly sounded uncertain of when that would be, meaning Ethier could be in center field for another week or so.
Ethier sees his play in center field as validation of his defensive skills, which remain in question even after a Gold Glove season in 2011.
"I thought I could play," Ethier said. "But every time I see these sabermetrics reports, it always says I'm on the bottom end in right field, which I don't get."
The last time Ethier played center field regularly was a decade ago as a junior at Arizona State. He started at the position in the 2010 All-Star game and in one game last season.
Ethier said he has surprised even himself.
"I've never really taken balls extendedly there," Ethier said. "I guess there was some part of me, in the back of my mind, that thought and knew I could. I think it's one of those type of things like where an infielder thinks he can play shortstop. I never expected to go over there and have an extended run."
Kemp to get medical checkup
Kemp is scheduled to return to Los Angeles on Tuesday from a rehabilitation assignment with triple-A Albuquerque. That doesn't mean Kemp is ready to be activated.
Kemp will be examined by the team's medical staff and will speak to Mattingly, after which a decision will be made as to what he will do next. Mattingly sounded as if he wanted Kemp to play in more minor league games.
Of the possibility of activating Kemp on Tuesday, Mattingly said, "We haven't really talked about that. I think at this point, we still feel he needs at-bats. I'm not sure where he's at with that. We'll talk to him tomorrow. We'll see how he feels."
Kemp played in his third game with Albuquerque on Monday. He was one for eight with five strikeouts in the first two games. He played in his last major league game May 29.
"We don't want him to come back until he's ready," Mattingly said. "It's been a month. It's hard to say you're ready to go in seven, eight at-bats."
Before his injury, Kemp was batting only .255.