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Friday, May 18, 2012
Patience paying off for Ellis, Dodgers

By Tony Jackson

Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate
A.J. Ellis, left, was the focus of his teammates' glee after drawing a bases-loaded walk to win the game.

LOS ANGELES -- There was plenty to nitpick about the Los Angeles Dodgers' latest victory, 6-5 over the St. Louis Cardinals before 40,906 on Friday night at Dodger Stadium, things like nine runners stranded in scoring position, a blown save in the ninth, four unearned runs by the Cardinals in the third. But it really wasn't the sort of evening to dwell on the negatives, especially when you had a bottom of the ninth like this one, an inning that fairly epitomized how this team with this pop-gun offense and so many key bats presently residing on the disabled list has managed to forge the best record in baseball.

The Dodgers have done it largely on the strength of quality at-bats. Like the eight-pitch walk Elian Herrera took to begin that inning. Like the four-pitch, bases-loaded walk the famously patient A.J. Ellis took to end it.

Cardinals reliever Fernando Salas threw 26 pitches that inning, to five batters, all while recording a grand total of one out. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes this Dodgers offense go, at least when Matt Kemp is out because of a strained hamstring.

"I think everybody here tries to have really good team at-bats any way that they can," said Ellis, who also had an RBI single in the second inning and ran his streak of reaching base to 27 consecutive games. "Some guys, like Andre (Ethier), are going to be more aggressive early in the count. Guys like myself and Bobby (Abreu) are going to be more patient and work the counts more."

It is an approach the New York Yankees used to use to maddening perfection during the day when Joe Torre was their manager and Don Mattingly was their hitting coach, and Torre and Mattingly tried to import that approach when they came to the Dodgers. But for the first couple of years, it was mostly maddening to Torre and Mattingly, and Dodgers hitters bought into it only sporadically.

This year, the Dodgers are doing it as a team perhaps better than at any point since Mattingly came to town four years ago to be their hitting coach. And the result, just as it often was for those Yankees teams, was that Mattingly has been able to squeeze more out of this offense than the sum of its parts.

"The thing we talk about is that we aren't exactly a juggernaut of an offensive club," Mattingly said. "We tell each guy that if a pitcher is going to get you out, make him fight for that out. That goes for guys up and down the order. Don't give that pitcher any easy ones or any free ones."

Ellis is one player who never really needed to hear that sermon. He has been in the Dodgers' organization since 2003, a good five years before the Torre/Mattingly group arrived, and he has always been that guy who drew a lot of walks and posted a high on-base percentage. It is one thing to do that in the minor leagues, where Ellis toiled for six years before making his big league debut and for nine years before getting his first real shot at a big league foothold. But he was never projected to be much of an offensive player at the major league level, for various reasons -- one of them being he perceived as being too passive at the plate.

"I remember being in meetings where you would hear people say he has to be more aggressive, he has to swing the bat," Mattingly said. "On-base (percentage) has always been his M.O., but I think everybody thought that in the big leagues, they were just going to pound the strike zone. But he is swinging the bat. He has hit (three) balls out of the ballpark, he has hit with men on base. He has forced them to make quality pitches, and when they do that, sometimes they miss."

The result is that Ellis has struck almost the perfect balance between being patient while still protecting the strike zone. He has 23 walks, by far the most on the team, and his OBP (.459) is more than 100 points better than his rock-solid batting average (.327), that OBP ranking third in the National League at the start of the day.

For that reason, there is beginning to emerge a groundswell of support -- locally, at least -- for Ellis as an All-Star candidate, however unlikely given his anonymity around the league and the fact he plays most of his games after much of the country has gone to bed. At any rate, there is no denying he has been a major factor in the Dodgers' offense, an offense that collectively has produced far more than it should be expected to given its talent level.

Take that ninth inning, for example. It was a fairly textbook decision by Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to intentionally walk James Loney with runners on first and third and one out. For one thing, it created a righty-righty matchup between Salas and Ellis. For another, it gave the Cardinals a better chance at an inning-ending double play because Ellis is a slower runner than Loney and also would have to travel the extra two steps from the right-handed box.

Textbook, yes. But wise? Maybe not.

After all, is the notoriously patient Ellis really the guy you want to pitch to with absolutely zero margin for error? Truthfully, Salas never really came close to the strike zone. Ellis later said that once the count got to 3-0, he was taking to 3-1, but not necessarily to 3-2. The issue was moot, though. That 3-0 pitch missed high and away, and the game was over, ending in a plate appearance that was classic Ellis and an inning that was classic 2012 Dodgers.

*****

Mattingly seemed to concede for the first time after the game that shortstop Dee Gordon might not be long for the leadoff spot. Gordon continued to struggle there, going 0-for-5 without hitting a ball out of the infield, and he now is 2-for-31 over the past seven games.

"Seeing it from where I was at tonight, it wasn't very good," said Mattingly, who got to watch most of it from the center-field television camera on the television in his office because he was ejected by plate umpire Tom Hallion in the top of the third inning. "The game seems to be moving awfully fast for him right now. We are going to continue to make decisions. But in the same breath, this kid is going to be a good player. He is going through something right now that is going to make him a better player later on.

"Things aren't easy in this game, and there are times when you're going to go through rough stuff. He is going through some rough stuff right now."

Reading between the lines of Mattingly's comments, it sounds like something will happen with Gordon soon, possibly before Saturday night's game. Because Gordon is such a key part of the Dodgers' future, it isn't likely anyone is going to let him sit around on the bench. A stint in Triple-A would seem more logical because it would mean he would be getting regular at-bats and have a chance to work out the kinks, something he couldn't do as a reserve player in the major leagues.

*****

Second baseman Mark Ellis was sent for X-rays on his left lower leg after being removed from the game following his at-bat in the seventh inning, this after the Cardinals' Tyler Greene had taken Ellis out in spectacular fashion in the top of the seventh while Ellis tried to turn the pivot on a double play that never happened.

Ellis had tried to go airborne to complete the throw, but he collided in midair with the oncoming Greene and flipped over him, landing hard on the dirt. After being examined by a trainer, Ellis stayed in, but not for long.

X-rays were negative. Ellis said after the game he was fine, just sore. Whether he will play on Saturday night remains to be seen.