Ellis has earned respect from Kershaw, Dodgers
Catcher having an impact this postseason both at the plate and behind it
ST. LOUIS -- A.J. Ellis isn't one of those rare catchers who can hit in the middle of the order. He's not the second coming of Ivan Rodriguez, with an arm that stops traffic. His next trip to the All-Star Game will be his first.
Yet whenever the Dodgers' season ends, possibly on Friday night or Saturday night at Busch Stadium, or maybe two weeks from now, no player will have earned his postseason share more than Ellis.
Ellis has caught every inning of the Dodgers' nine postseason games, calling pitches for Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and helping 25-year-old closer Kenley Jansen maintain his smile under duress. He's hitting .321 with five extra-base hits and a 1.040 OPS.
"You know, I think all of our pitchers in general have a great deal of respect for A.J.," manager Don Mattingly said. "I know [St. Louis'] Yadier [Molina] gets a lot of attention, and he should, but we love our guy."
Only four years ago, Ellis could have been viewed as just another No. 8 hitter in Triple-A, but it was no accident that he hit eighth for the Albuquerque Isotopes. Tim Wallach, the Dodgers' third-base coach, who managed that team at the time, was preparing the 6-foot-3 catcher for exactly the situation he's been in this October.
"I was coming off a good year when 2009 came around," Ellis said. "I said to [Wallach], 'Where are you going to hit me in the lineup -- sixth, seventh? He said, 'Eighth. If you get to the big leagues, you're going to hit eighth there.' It was huge for me. It taught me how to hit in front of the pitcher. It's a head game. I came to love it. I still do."
It's common for solid receivers who hover around the Mendoza Line to bat eighth, but few embrace the assignment as enthusiastically as Ellis, who has hit there in 144 of his 299 career starts. He's expected to be there again in the Dodgers' must-win Game 6 of the National League Championship Series on Friday (5:30 p.m. PT on TBS), although Mattingly may be tempted to move him up in the order.
Ellis is the kind of hitter teams have in mind near the bottom when they talk about lengthening the lineup.
"[You have to know] when to swing, when to be patient, aggressive. ... What to do to turn the lineup over," Ellis said. "Being a catcher, I already loved the mental side of the game, but this is another facet offensively. I give [Wallach] a lot of credit for putting me in that spot."
Wallach played 17 years for the Expos, Dodgers and Angels. He managed Albuquerque to the Pacific Coast League playoffs in 2009 and joined Mattingly's coaching staff three years ago.
"The biggest thing he ever did for me, which helped me so much, was after every game [at Albuquerque], the next day, when I showed up at the field, Tim would call me into his office and he'd say, 'What were the three biggest batters of the game?'" Ellis said. "I'd have to name them. Sometimes I'd be right, sometimes he'd name them, and he'd say, 'What were your pitch sequences?' I'd talk about the sequences, we'd go through the at-bats, and he'd say that was dead on, perfect, or he'd say, did you consider doing this or that? It made me start rethinking the game of baseball."
Wallach is on the short list of Major League coaches who have prepared themselves to manage, and it won't be a surprise if he gets a call from the Cubs, Nationals, Reds or Mariners with a chance to interview for a managerial opening when the Dodgers' season ends.
"He is right at the top of my list of intelligent baseball men who see the game differently, at a different speed than everybody else," Ellis said. "I don't know if it's going to happen for him right now or in the future, but he's going to be a phenomenal Major League manager someday. He's going to win a lot of games as a manager."
You get the feeling that the 32-year-old Ellis will also be in demand when his playing career is over, either as a uniformed staffer, front-office executive or broadcaster. His passion for baseball comes through in every conversation.
But for now, with his team two victories away from the World Series, he will be ready to do whatever he can to help a lineup that has scored 13 runs in five games against the Cardinals' collection of power arms.
"It's no secret we've really let our pitching down in the whole series," he said after hitting one of the Dodgers' four solo home runs in Game 5. "We have not held up our end of the bargain."
Ellis on Friday will be getting his second look at Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha after hitting a double off him in Game 2. He admits that his team has "a mountain to climb," and it's in part because his passed ball led to an unearned run in that 1-0 loss to Wacha and St. Louis last Saturday.
Kershaw was as shocked as anyone that Ellis whiffed on that fifth-inning pitch, which allowed David Freese to move into position to score on Jon Jay's soft sacrifice fly to left field, and he looks forward to working with him again.
"A.J.'s huge," Kershaw said on Thursday. "A.J. and I are pretty good buddies off the field, obviously, but on the field I just have a lot of trust in him and what he calls. I know he's done probably the most homework of anybody, other than [pitching coach Rick] Honeycutt. It's just a good feeling as a pitcher that your catcher has done all the homework possible to make the right calls."
Ellis hopes for a payback moment in Busch Stadium.
"We have to show up as a team," Ellis said. "Clayton can't score runs for himself. It's up to us to do the job offensively."
There are no little at-bats in elimination games, even those by the guys at the bottom of the batting order.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.