Role players like Ellis change L.A. story

LOS ANGELES -- He catches every third day or so, often enough that you've heard his name, but never with enough fanfare to make you remember it.

To the average fan, A.J. Ellis is just a guy on the Dodgers' 25-man roster during a season most will forget as soon it's over. The backup catcher. The No. 8 hitter. The guy mentioned at the bottom of the game notes when he's called up or sent back to Triple-A Albuquerque.

But in this lost season that is suddenly looking found, players like Ellis -- character guys who couldn't care less if you remembered their name -- have played a key role in the Dodgers' pleasantly surprising second-half surge.

"It's real simple," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said of his club's record, which is 38-24 since July 7. "The biggest thing they did was keep showing up. All year we've talked about playing hard and being prepared every day.

"It might be harder to do now than if we were in the World Series, but it's important we continue to do our thing. You can't turn it on and off in this game."

The lion's share of the credit for that consistency should and will go to Mattingly, MVP-candidate Matt Kemp and Cy Young-candidate Clayton Kershaw, but there's more to it than that. It's the attitude or maybe just the force of several strong, hard-working personalities who have helped run the Dodgers' clubhouse this year. Guys like Casey Blake, Jamey Carroll, Tony Gwynn Jr. and, yes, Ellis, the guy who catches every third day or so.

During the past three seasons, Ellis has had a thousand chances to check out, sulk or lament his fate in the organization. Not only have the Dodgers gone out and traded for an older catcher to supercede him in the present (Rod Barajas), they signed a former top prospect (Dioner Navarro) to back Barajas up then traded away one of their top outfield prospects for a younger catcher (Tim Federowicz) to play ahead of him in the future.

In between, the pats on the back have been rare and the signals have been mixed.

If you were giving him advice, at some point you might have just said, "Hey, maybe they're just not that into you?" and encouraged him not to take it personally.

Good thing no one did.

Because instead of sulking, Ellis worked. Instead of stalling, he continued to grow. Instead of fading from the organization's plans, he forced himself back into the conversation.

"There were times last season where A.J. wasn't hitting the ball out of the ballpark in BP," Mattingly said. "Next thing you know he's launching balls in BP and you go, 'Whoa! Something's changing in there.'

"He really did a lot of work with [former hitting instructor Jeff Pentland]. He'd get here at like 1 o'clock, and by the time I'd get to the park to meet guys at the cage, they would've already been in there for like an hour and A.J. was soaking wet.

"It makes you open your eyes to a guy that's willing to go that distance. And it makes you think, 'I'm not going to sell him short, because this guy is willing to go a lot farther than a lot of guys are willing to go.'"

It's the kind of work ethic Mattingly gets worked up talking about and the kind of story he can't help but be charmed by.

But like the Dodgers' slow, steady climb back toward respectability this season, after owner Frank McCourt's legal and financial woes undercut everything happening on the field, Ellis' happy ending didn't come because of good luck or good will. It came because he kept showing up ready to play and ready to work every day.

"I really think a big part of [this resurgence] is that the guys who have come up are guys that are trying to establish themselves," Ellis said. "So you have a lot of hungry players, myself included."

He's been hungry since the day the Dodgers selected him in the 18th round of the 2003 draft.

It was a surprise pick, one that Ellis hadn't counted on or expected. He'd already made plans to go to graduate school and be an assistant coach at his alma mater, Austin Peay.

"I got drafted, so I was like, 'Well, let's go see how this goes,'" he said. "Once I was in there, I figured I might as well try as hard as I can."

"He's worked and he's worked and he's worked," said Kershaw, who is one of Ellis' closest friends on the team. "Nothing's ever been handed to him. He's never had the prospect label or anything like that. He's just earned everything that he's gotten.

"He's battled his way up here, and now he's starting to swing the bat and figure that out, which is great, because catching-wise he's always done all his homework and had great hands."

Before each series, he huddles with Dodgers bullpen catcher Mike Borzello to prepare the scouting reports for the rest of the team. Most of the time these sessions take place late at night on the plane while the rest of the team is sleeping.

"It takes hours," Borzello said, "but it's worth it. And A.J. is great at it. I really miss it when he's not here to help me out and I have to do it by myself."

The next morning, they'll take those reports to pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who will review them, make his own notes and then present the information to the Dodgers pitchers before the start of the series.

"When he's behind the plate, you always know what you're going to get out of A.J.," said reliever Josh Lindblom. "He's just so prepared. You can kind of just take it easy on the days you're throwing just knowing he knows what pitches to put down and what you need to do.

"It takes a big burden off you as a pitcher. You still have to prepare, but really, when he's back there, all you have to do is worry about executing the pitches."

That might sound like a small thing. And really, he catches only every third day or so.

But it's his thing. If the Dodgers are lucky, it might become their thing, too.

"I learned when I got called up here the first time there wasn't going to be any long-term, individual glory for me in this game," Ellis said. "The way I can make an impact on this game and this organization is to be part of a championship team. I want to be part of the team that wins and brings a championship back to L.A., and I want to do it with Donny as my manager."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.