Reporting from Miami
Andre Ethier was smiling and laughing. It was easy for him to be pleasant.
Ethier hit a 10th-inning home run Wednesday to lead the Dodgers past the Florida Marlins, 5-4, at Sun Life Stadium. His hitting streak reached 24 games. He would soon be on his way back to Los Angeles, where he would get a day to spend with his family before his team opened a three-game series against the San Diego Padres.
Told that Marlins right-hander Brian Sanches hadn't given up a run in 132/3 innings leading to Ethier's home run, the outfielder laughed and said, "I'm glad I didn't know that before."
Ethier has always been easy to deal with when things are going well. But his manager and teammates say he has changed — most notably during times that don't call for celebration.
The once-moody right fielder has become the Dodgers' unofficial spokesman, fielding questions on subjects that make others uncomfortable, such as the team ownership saga and disgraced former teammate Manny Ramirez.
In the company of teammates, the natural introvert is becoming increasingly vocal.
"You hear his voice a lot more than you did last year," catcher Rod Barajas said. "He's getting more involved."
And most important, he has turned himself into the dependable middle-of-the-lineup hitter the Dodgers lacked a season ago, batting .380 through the first 26 games.
"He gets up there and there's a level of confidence that you only see with those special hitters," Barajas said.
In his previous five seasons, Ethier displayed the potential to be this type of person and player. What he lacked was consistency. That was something he said he wanted to improve when he reported to spring training and declared that he intended to become a team leader.
"It's still a work in progress every day," he said. "It's a new thing to try to do and become. It's changing the way I carry myself. … When you've played one way for a long time, it's hard to change."
Wednesday presented an additional challenge. It was the Dodgers' 20th game in 20 days. The early start time required him to wake up at 7:30 a.m. — 4:30 a.m. on the West Coast.
"I think the last couple days, it's been more figuring out a way to dig deep," he said. "Twenty games in a row is a rough stretch."
When he's worn down, Ethier said he looks around him, in particular at players such as Jamey Carroll and Aaron Miles, undersized overachievers, so-called grinders.
"They're just grinding and finding ways to get on base anyway they can," he said. "When you see that, you take note. You try to do the same thing as them."
Again, the key is consistency. Don't try to hit the ball out of the park. Get a hit, get something started.
That was what he was thinking in the fourth inning, when he singled with one out. Two batters later, Barajas hit a three-run home run that closed the Dodgers' deficit to 4-3.
Ethier said he is aware of his tendency to denigrate himself in turbulent times, which is why he has relied on veterans such as Barajas, Casey Blake and Marcus Thames to guide him through his periods of self-doubt.
Because he no longer is concerned that he might be benched next week, he said, he can take the time to analyze the consequences of his words and actions.
"I know where this organization has come from, where it's been, what it means to L.A., what it can mean to L.A., and what it should mean for L.A.," he said.
He said he wants Dodgers fans to be proud of their team.
In the midst of this metamorphosis, Ethier said he has discovered he is having more fun.
"My dad tells me all the time, 'Do you know how many kids would love to be in your shoes?' " he said. "You hear that all the time and you don't let it hit you."
But in recent weeks, Ethier said he has derived joy out of the simplest of tasks — buttoning up his uniform, taking batting practice, talking to his teammates in the clubhouse.
"I'm better at focusing, staying in that moment and enjoying that moment," he said.
He is treating his major league record-for-April hitting streak that way. He knows it will end. Might as well have fun while it lasts.
"I'm enjoying it, taking it all in," he said. "Not too many times in your major league career, or any part of your career, do you get a chance to go through something like this."