- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps nothing that was said in the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse following Sunday's game, a 7-6, 11-inning spoiler over the playoff-contending Colorado Rockies before 37,402 at Dodger Stadium, encapsulated the growth of longtime catching prospect A.J. Ellis this season better than these words from manager Joe Torre:
"He certainly isn't someone you're going to pinch hit for."
Not that Torre could have even if he had wanted to when Ellis came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 11th, because the Dodgers already had burned all three of the catchers on their roster and there still was the possibility that the game would continue into the 12th. But Ellis, who had entered defensively in the top of the 10th, made sure all that was moot.
After working Rockies reliever Manny Delcarmen for a 3-and-1 count, Ellis didn't bite on a fastball that might have been inside and might have been high, took two steps up the first-base line, then had to stop and come back to the plate when umpire Tim Welke called it strike two. But it was all good, because Ellis drove Delcarmen's next pitch on a line, just over the head of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and into left-center for a walk-off single that prevented the Rockies from moving into a second-place tie in the National League West and to within half a game of the division lead.
It was Ellis' second walk-off hit of the season, but more important, it was his seventh hit in his past eight at-bats, and he has reached base in his past five plate appearances.
Making that all the more remarkable is the fact that as recently as spring training, when it appeared Ellis would begin the season as the Dodgers' primary catcher before Russell Martin made a quicker-than-anticipated recovery from a groin injury just before opening day, Ellis was a soon-to-be-29-year-old career minor leaguer whose best-case future scenario was to be a major league backup and a defensive specialist -- this despite the fact he was coming off two stellar offensive seasons at Triple-A Albuquerque in which he had led the organization in on-base percentage in each of them.
Until recently, Ellis had mostly affirmed those projections. But in recent weeks, he has been working intensely with hitting instructor Jeff Pentland, and at times with hitting coach/manager-in-waiting Don Mattingly, to basically overhaul his entire swing. It is something Ellis said he still isn't entirely comfortable with, hinting in his typically modest way that the results he has gotten lately are more coincidence than anything else.
"This is a little bit different," Ellis said. "We're trying to change my swing path more than anything, to more of an up-to-down angle as opposed to before, when I was more level and sometimes even down-to-up, which is a tough way to hit up here. That was a swing that had been ingrained in me for a while, and it was maybe a product of all those years using an aluminum bat when I was younger, where they put more emphasis on staying inside the ball and pushing the ball a little bit. With a wood bat, you're going to see sinkers and cutters.
"I don't think we expected these results. It was more just about getting better swings and having better at-bats."
And maybe even creating a better projection.
"I wouldn't sell A.J. short," said Mattingly when asked if Ellis could become an offensive catcher. "He has worked so hard, and he is one of those guys you love to see having success because of how hard he has worked for it. Pent has done a lot of work with him, and they are putting their time in. A.J. is probably hitting 200-300 balls a day down in the cage, which I love to see."
The catching situation for the fourth-place Dodgers (73-77) -- who are now 11 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants -- is somewhat muddled. Martin, who already is making $5.05 million, is entering his third winter of arbitration and coming off his third consecutive season of falling numbers offensively. Rod Barajas, who was acquired in a waiver claim on Aug. 22 and hit one fewer home run in his 20 games with the Dodgers than Martin hit in his 97 games for them this season, is a free agent who loves playing for the Dodgers and would be relatively cheap to re-sign -- he is making $900,000 this year -- but he turned 35 two weeks ago, and there is some question as to whether he could be an everyday catcher at this stage of his career.
It is conceivable, then, that Ellis has a strong chance of at least being a part-time catcher next season, starting two or three games a week. His chances of that will only increase if he can continue to blossom on the offensive side the way he has in recent days.
Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp hit his first home run since Aug. 24 and had his first three-hit game since Aug. 29. All three of his hits -- a single, a double and his 23rd homer of the season -- came after the sixth inning, and all three were critical to the Dodgers snapping their four-game losing streak.
With the Dodgers already having closed a 6-1 deficit to 6-4, Kemp tore into a 1-1 pitch from Rockies reliever Matt Belisle and not only drove it over the center-field wall but also cleared the makeshift broadcast studio that is routinely used for the Dodgers' postgame show, a drive estimated to have traveled more than 430 feet.
Then, with the Rockies still leading 6-5 in the ninth and their closer, Huston Street, in the game, Rafael Furcal drove a one-out double to the base of the wall in right-center. Concluding an at-bat in which Furcal moved to third on a wild pitch, Kemp then blooped a double just inside the left-field line, allowing Furcal to jog home with the tying run.
Finally, with Furcal on first and one out in the 11th, Kemp went with an outside fastball and poked it through the right side for a single that put Furcal on third and, after an intentional walk, set the table for Ellis' game-winning single.
Kemp finished 3-for-5 with a walk and, for the first time in the past seven games he has started, no strikeouts.
"Matt Kemp was very, very, very good," Torre said. "The home run, he hit on the screws. His swing was so much better. Hopefully, he can just finish up strong here. I know he is going to do a lot of thinking and learning from this year, and hopefully he can build off this."
With Jonathan Broxton once again on the verge of disaster -- he walked three of the five batters he faced in the top of the 11th -- Torre decided he wasn't going to wait for the sky to fall this time. He went to the mound and pulled the former All-Star closer, who walked slowly off the field to a chorus of boos from what was left of the crowd.
Torre then brought in lefty George Sherrill to face NL Most Valuable Player front-runner Carlos Gonzalez, a left-handed hitter. With the count 1-1, Sherrill threw a fastball down the middle that Gonzalez took, something Sherrill later said he saw as a sign that Gonzalez was looking for a breaking ball. Sherrill also said he felt fairly certain the Rockies' scouting report had picked up on his tendency to use a slide step only on his fastball, so when Ellis then called for a slider, Sherrill made a point of slide stepping.
Gonzalez, expecting the fastball, went after the slider and tipped it into Ellis' mitt, ending the inning and leaving the bases loaded.
The Dodgers will take their penultimate off-day of the season Monday, then begin a three-game series with the San Diego Padres on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium. Right-hander Chad Billingsley (11-10, 3.55), who on Wednesday night at San Francisco lost for the third time this year in a game in which he gave up no more than two runs, will take the mound in the opener for the Dodgers. He will be opposed by the Padres' Clayton Richard (12-8, 3.70), who is coming off his worst outing of the season Wednesday at Colorado -- he gave up eight runs on a career high-tying 11 hits -- but he had a 1.64 ERA in his six previous starts.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
A.J. Ellis' game-winning hit for the Dodgers is a product of hard work.