August 27, 2016
NEW YORK – Nine years ago, A.J. Ellis was the Dodgers version of Lou Marson, the former Phillies prospect who nearly had his head taken off when Shane Victorino hit a game-tying home run (before Matt Stairs’ celebrated game-winning blast) in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series as Dodger Stadium.
Ellis had only played 12 major league games between 2008 and 2009, but he traveled with the team as a non-roster emergency catcher. He was in the Dodgers bullpen at Citizens Bank Park, within earshot of Ashburn Alley, when the Phillies were in the midst of their best run in franchise history.
“When big home runs and walk-off hits were happening,” Ellis said Saturday, when he joined the Phillies two days after being acquired from the Dodgers in the Carlos Ruiz trade. “I can remember those days very, very well. Hopefully, you’re starting to see a resurgence of those days here in the near future for the Phillies.”
It’s unlikely that Ellis, a 35-year-old free agent-to-be, will be around when the rebuilding Phillies return to glory. But after overcoming the hard-to-hear news that he was leaving a first-place team for one 10 games under .500, Ellis arrived in the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field ready to work.
Instead of hanging out in the clubhouse learning names, Ellis spent a bulk of his first day in a Phillies uniform in the bullpen, catching Jake Thompson and Jerad Eickhoff in their in-between-starts side sessions.
“You see the talent, you see their desire to learn, their desire to get better,” Ellis said. “You just know the youth on this staff, the talent level on this staff. And if I can in some short time here impart some wisdom on those guys, share some of the wisdom along the way that I’ve picked up from some great mentors I’ve had in my time in the game, I need to pay it back, from what all has been given to me.”
Manager Pete Mackanin said that Ellis would get his first start behind the plate on Sunday, catching Vince Velasquez in the series finale at Citi Field. The manager is glad to have a veteran like Ruiz who can impart some advice onto the team’s young pitching staff in the season’s final five weeks.
But he also planned to use Ellis to help his hitters, too.
“We’re having a hitters meeting with him (today), kind of letting our hitters know what their plan was against us, weaknesses,” Mackanin said, adding that those scouting reports should be fresh since the Phils and Dodgers squared off twice within the last three weeks.
“For example, ‘We like to show you in hard early and get you away soft,’” Mackanin continued. “‘We stay away from you and throw you a lot of breaking balls.’ I think it would be good for our hitters to hear that from an outside source.”
Even before that meeting, Ellis said his work on that front had already begun.
“We were doing some of that with the pitchers out there,” he said. “We’ve seen these guys twice in the last couple weeks. We can dig into those conversations and talk to the offensive side of how we wanted to attack them and as a catcher, things that I’ve noticed from watching them swing the bats. Maybe shrink the gaps a little bit and create better offensive at-bats. When you have a better understanding of how the opposing team is trying to get you out, it can only be a benefit.”
Ellis said the first 12 hours after the trade were the most difficult. After spending his entire career with the Dodgers, becoming a personal favorite of three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, he didn’t enjoy hearing he was leaving his team in the middle of a pennant race.
“It was hard,” he said. “Immediate and sudden.”
But the short time that’s passed since he made the cross-country flight has helped Ellis adjust to his new reality.
“I’m starting to feel re-energized,” Ellis said. “Refilled with sense of purpose as to why I’ve been placed here, and why this where I need to be at this time. I’m excited about that. I know I have huge shoes to fill. I know that. Carlos Ruiz is such a fixture in the Phillies organization, the work that he’s done here behind the plate, you can’t fill. This guy is a world champion catcher who has been back there for so many great baseball memories. So it’s up to me to do my part to fill the void.”