WASHINGTON — About month and a half ago, Andre Ethier spoke to Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly and the hitting coaches about how he wasn't making solid contact with the ball.
In that meeting, the group set a modest goal for the then-slumping outfielder: Get one hit a day, build from there.
Soon after, the hits started coming again. And Friday night, in the Dodgers' first game back from the All-Star break, Ethier's long-dormant power returned, too.
Ethier's ninth-inning home run was the difference in the Dodgers' 3-2 victory over the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, the team's 18th victory in their last 23 games. Earlier in the game, Hanley Ramirez hit the ninth home run of his injury-shortened season, a two-run shot in the third inning.
Ethier's home run was only his sixth of the season. Ethier, whose power numbers have steadily declined since he hit a career-high 31 home runs in 2009, had last hit a home run June 11.
"I still think that 30 home runs is there," Mattingly said.
Told of what Mattingly said, Ethier replied, jokingly, "If I do this year, that's a miracle."
Mattingly pointed out that some of Ethier's recent seasons were disrupted by injuries. Ethier broke a pinkie in 2010. He underwent a knee operation before the end of the 2011 season.
"You start making changes in your swing," Mattingly said.
That was why Mattingly and his coaches advised Ethier to think small. Even Friday, before he hit that home run, Ethier said Mattingly told him, "Get on base any way you can."
Ethier stayed on a down-and-in, two-strike slider from closer Rafael Soriano and sent it over the right-field wall.
"I don't know how he hit that ball," Soriano said.
The fact that Ethier was in position to win the game underscored how much these Dodgers have changed in recent weeks.
In his third start for the Dodgers, recently acquired Ricky Nolasco held the Nationals to two runs over 51/3 innings. With the Dodgers ahead, 2-1, in the fourth inning, the Nationals loaded the bases against Nolasco. The Nationals didn't score.
"I was trying to go pitch by pitch," Nolasco said.
The once-shaky bullpen held the Nationals scoreless over the final 32/3 innings.
Rookie Jose Dominguez pitched an inning. Left-hander Paco Rodriguez recorded four outs. Ronald Belisario retired Jayson Werth for the final out of the eighth inning. Kenley Jansen saved the game with a perfect ninth inning.
The improved form of the bullpen is what Mattingly attributed their increased success to in close games. The Dodgers have won 10 of their last 12 one-run games.
Belisario said the relievers have benefited from the setting of roles.
"It helps you concentrate more," Belisario said.
The Dodgers were also bolstered by the returns of Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford and Mark Ellis, who were all nursing minor injuries leading up to the All-Star break.
Puig was again the player who probably provided the paying spectators with what will be their longest-lasting memories of the night.
In the second inning, he made an on-the-fly throw from right field that appeared to nail Bryce Harper tagging up for third base. Harper was called safe by umpire Eric Cooper and later scored on a wild pitch.
Puig's catch to end the seventh inning was as spectacular, as he crashed into a wall after running down a slicing ball hit by Anthony Rendon in foul territory.
"If it's not a home run, everything stays with me," Puig said, smiling.