Commentary

Now playing the role of hero: A.J. Ellis

Updated: June 6, 2010, 11:42 PM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Dodgers backup catcher A.J. Ellis spent the ninth inning on Saturday night throwing off a mound in the bullpen, preparing pitch if reliever Charlie Haeger failed to finish the game. The Dodgers trailed the Atlanta Braves by a lopsided margin and manager Joe Torre didn't want to burden his already-taxed relief corps.

But on a team that has tireless Russell Martin as its regular catcher, what Ellis did on Sunday was almost as rare as seeing a position player come in to

[+] EnlargeA.J. Ellis, Matt Kemp
AP Photo/Jeff LewisMatt Kemp tackles A.J. Ellis after the game-winning RBI in the 11th inning.

Specifically, Ellis started a game behind the plate. And as that game crept ever closer to the four-hour mark, the seldom-used Ellis got to play the hero in the Dodgers' 5-4, 11-inning victory over the Atlanta Braves before 37,944 at Dodger Stadium.

With Martin, who had drawn a leadoff walk as a pinch hitter, on second in the bottom of the 11th, one out and Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar playing close to the bag to discourage Martin from trying anything cute, Ellis pulled a base hit through the gaping hole on the left side, driving in Martin to break a deadlock that had existed since the fifth inning.

Ellis went all the way to second as the throw came in from left field, then ran all the way onto the outfield grass in a futile attempt to escape being tackled by hulking teammate Matt Kemp, who rushed out of the dugout and eventually wrestled Ellis to the turf in shallow center.

"It was like a big strong safety coming after me," Ellis said.

Until that moment, Ellis' afternoon at the plate hadn't exactly been memorable. He had grounded into a double play to snuff out a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the fourth, and he had flied out to center to strand a runner on third in the eighth. Before his walkoff hit, he was batting just .192 (5 for 26), which isn't unusual for a backup catcher, especially one who backs up Martin. Ellis gets precious few plate appearances, and backup catchers are almost never used as pinch hitters because managers don't want to leave themselves without a catcher in case the guy in the game gets hurt.

But Ellis' biggest contribution to this game might have been the 11 innings he put in behind the plate on a hot, exhausting day.

First, he coaxed rookie John Ely through what was arguably his toughest outing of the season.

Ely, who left his pitches up and over the plate all afternoon, lasted just five innings, giving up four runs on nine hits. And then, after relievers Justin Miller, Hong-Chih Kuo, Jeff Weaver and Jonathan Broxton basically had their way with the Braves through the ninth, Ellis navigated a high-strung Ronald Belisario through a treacherous 10th inning in which the Braves left runners on second and third. Belisario came back to sail through a one-hit 11th, setting him up for his first win of the season.

That win came courtesy of Ellis, who followed Martin's walk and Blake DeWitt's sacrifice with the hit that kept the second-place Dodgers (33-24) within a half-game of division-leading San Diego in the National League West. It also reminded Ellis of just why he continues to pursue a career that so far hasn't offered much in the way of rewards at the big league level and caused him to miss the birth of his second child, a son, last Saturday.

Ellis said his wife, Cindy, whom he met when they were athletes at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., is the key to that continued pursuit.

"She said a long time ago that if I were in the minor leagues, I would come home for the birth, just like I had for the birth of Ainsley, our older daughter," Ellis said. "But if I was in the big leagues, she said I couldn't leave a team with only one catcher. I asked her repeatedly, are you sure it's OK, are you sure it's OK, and she kept saying it was OK. Thankfully, through all the technology that is available, I was able to see [the birth via Skype]. She is a big athlete. She was a college volleyball player, and she came to every one of my baseball games. She understands the business and the unfortunate burden it puts on families. I wouldn't be here without her support.

"This has been a special journey, and it's really great to be here. But the most important thing is to contribute and be a part of the team."

On an afternoon when the Dodgers salvaged a split in this four-game showdown between the two hottest teams in the N.L., Ellis' contribution couldn't have been more timely.

Key performance

Less than 24 hours after he was part of a rare, seventh-inning meltdown by the Dodgers' bullpen, Belisario bounced back in a big way at a critical time. But first, he flirted with a little more disaster.

With Ramon Troncoso and Haeger the only relievers left, Belisario got two quick outs in the 10th. But he issued a five-pitch walk to Gregor Blanco, who was batting for the first time after entering defensively in the eighth inning. Belisario then started Escobar with ball one before Escobar poked a single through the right side. And then, a visibly frustrated Belisario threw a wild pitch, putting the runners on second and third.

It was here that pitching coach Rick Honeycutt came to try to calm his excitable reliever.

"I think sometimes, he gets into trying to throw too hard,'' Torre said. "I think the only thing Honey tried to do was reel him in a little bit.''

Belisario came back to strike out Melky Cabrera, stranding both runners in scoring position, then pitched around a one-out single by N.L. batting leader Martin Prado in the 11th, striking out rookie phenom Jason Heyward on a two-seam fastball to end it.

It was a nice bounce back for Belisario, who had given up a two-run homer to the first batter he faced, Braves first baseman Troy Glaus, the night before.

By the numbers

2 -- hits, both singles, in the four-game series by Heyward, the early frontrunner for the N.L. Rookie of the Year award. The Braves' big right fielder went 2 for 17 with three walks and eight strikeouts (five of them on Friday night alone) and just one RBI, on a one-out single off fellow rookie Ely in the third inning on Sunday. Heyward's average dropped 16 points, from .288 to .272, in the series.

Scene and heard

As what had to have been the fourth or fifth rotation of Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA" finally ended in the victorious Dodgers clubhouse, Kemp -- who had tickets to Game 2 of the NBA Finals at Staples Center and was doomed to miss tipoff because the Dodgers' game had gone 11 innings and lasted three hours, 37 minutes -- didn't let the long-awaited silence go undisturbed for long.

"Wooo!," Kemp bellowed. "Yayyy, A.J. Ellis. I'm going to make the game by the first quarter. My hero!"

With that, "Party in the USA" started up again.

Quote of the day

"I threw some fastballs that came back over the plate. Good hitters don't miss pitches over the plate. I can't be missing over the plate that much, and today, I missed a couple of times. But that's baseball. I just have to move on from here. But the important thing was that we won the game." -- Ely, who had arguably his worst start of the season and his first bad one since his big league debut on April 28. He lasted just five innings, giving up four earned runs on nine hits. He also walked two batters for the third consecutive start after walking a total of one over his previous four starts.

Looking ahead

Rookie Carlos Monasterios (2-0, 1.87) will make his fourth major league start in the opener of a three-game series with the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium. Although he didn't go more than five innings in any of the first three, Monasterios also allowed just three earned runs on 10 hits over 14 innings in those games. Right-hander P.J. Walters (1-0, 6.23), another rookie, goes for the Cardinals. He is coming off a disastrous start against Cincinnati on Tuesday in which he was torched for seven runs on eight hits over four innings.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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