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Mark Ellis: overshadowed, not unimportant

3/22/2013

When Mark Ellis broke into the major leagues, he was the Oakland A’s second choice behind Esteban German, who was injured at the time.

That’s how Ellis’ career began and it has never quite emerged from a state of obscurity. As Eric Stephen of the blog Truebluela put it, Ellis is, like a good waiter, almost invisible.

“You turn to talk to your dinner companion and, before you know it, your drinks have been refilled and there is a fresh basket of bread at the table,” Stephen wrote.

Ellis does all the little things so well and those things figure to be even harder to spot this season, with well-paid, more-decorated players all over the diamond for the Dodgers. He is, however, an important player – a key table setter on offense and the tone-setter for up-the-middle defense that could be otherwise iffy.

Like his college roommate at Florida, David Eckstein, Ellis does his best work when you hardly notice him. He has the second-highest career fielding percentage for a second baseman behind Placido Polanco.

In 2006, he broke an American League record for fielding percentage by a second baseman and somehow didn’t win the Gold Glove (It went to Kansas City’s Mark Grudzielanek).

He is such a skillful base runner, it was stunning to see him -- while representing the tying run -- thrown out at third base trying to stretch a double in the seventh inning of the game that eliminated the Dodgers last October. After the game, he admitted it was the "wrong play."

Ellis, unlike some players with more obvious physical tools, has to rebuild, rather than refine, his game every spring. He’s been solid, batting .318 going into Friday’s game.

“Just trying to feel like a baseball player again,” Ellis said recently at Camelback Ranch. “Every spring, it’s hard to get it going again.”

Ellis will turn 36 in June. He’s coming off a down year at the plate (.258) and a trying year off the field, mostly because of how long he was off it. On May 18, Ellis was planted while trying to turn a double play when the St. Louis Cardinals’ Tyler Greene came crashing through the bag trying to break it up.

The violent collision produced an injury that was far more traumatic than it first appeared. Ellis needed an emergency fasciotomy the next day to relieve pressure from the swelling due to internal bleeding. Doctors told Ellis that, had they not performed the surgery, he could have lost the leg.

Earlier in camp this spring, Ellis told MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick that it took him a while after he got back to stand in there long enough to turn close double plays. Eventually, he did.

"That's the good thing about baseball, because you play every day and don't have time to worry, not like football with a week between games,” Ellis said. “If you can't get over it pretty quick, you won't be playing the game anymore."

That’s nothing new. Ellis has always been a few mistakes away from losing his standing in the game and he has survived this far, going into his 11th season. He missed all of the 2004 season with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.

The Dodgers have plenty of star power. It wouldn't hurt if some of Ellis’ toughness and resolve rubbed off.