"Hey A.J., what place at the Dodgers in?"
For a nine-inning game that took three hours and 50 minutes to complete, it seemed only right that the Dodgers' most patient hitter was at the plate with the game on the line. A.J. Ellis came through for the Dodgers - again - with a three-run home run for a 6-3 win over the Houston Astros, and the second walk-off RBI for Ellis in nine days.
After the 6'5", 249-pound Scott Van Slyke was sent up as a pinch-hitter to sacrifice, Houston manager Brad Mills opted not to bring in left-hander Fernando Abad to face James Loney, who had three line-drive hits on the night, but rather chose to walk Loney intentionally to leave his right-hander Wilton Lopez in to face Ellis, who was hitting .319/.444/.500 entering the night, a move Ellis saw coming.
"It's the right thing to do, it's the right baseball move. You have a sinkerballer on the mound, and I'm not the fastest guy in the world so I'm a double play candidate," Ellis said. "After the bunt got put down I assumed that would be the situation."
Lopez struck out Ellis twice earlier this season in Houston, and those at-bats were fresh in the mind of Ellis.
"He's a tough tough pitcher who you have to just narrow your focus and find a pitch up in the zone. Luckily I was able to find one and was able to elevate," Ellis said. "I was just trying to put a good aggressive swing on it, and drive the ball into the outfield."
He got it into the outfield alright. Ellis is third on the Dodgers with five home runs.
"The offense he has given us, with the power and RBI, has been huge. With the on-base, and the whole package has been great," manager Don Mattingly said. "It's a credit to him. You like to see guys that work that hard have success.
"He's worked and worked and worked on his swing. I can't even tell you the amount of hours this guy puts in. A couple years ago, he was getting called up he would just wear you out in the cage. He wore Jeff Pentland out. It got to the point where Pent would come in at 1 o'clock so he could hit. He'd be in there an hour and a half working on his swing, and he's continued to work. That's why I say it's such a good story."
Waiting Out Norris
Both starting pitchers struggled on Saturday night, with Chad Billingsley throwing 99 pitches in his five innings and Bud Norris throwing 116 pitches in 4 2/3 innings. For Billingsley, who was at 88 pitches through four innings, it could have been a shorter night. He was due up with runners on second and third base and one out in the bottom of the fourth inning, down 2-1, and having already thrown 88 pitches. Mattingly considered pinch hitting for Billingsley, as he did three starts ago against Tim Lincecum and the Giants in a similar situation, also in the fourth.
"I considered it. It was different from the standpoint that Lincecum was really rolling on us last night," Mattingly said. "Tonight I had a better pitch count in my favor, and I thought we'd be able to run [Norris] out of there."
That strategy worked to perfection, as the Dodgers made Norris throw 43 pitches in the fourth inning alone and grabbed the lead.
"We have a lot of professional hitters on this team. With Bobby Abreu joining this team, his at-bats rub off on everyone else," Ellis said. "One thing [Mattingly] preaches is to try to get that starter out of the game as quick as you can, and get his pitch count up."
As for Billingsley, he was able to avoid the fate of an early exit, retiring the final seven hitters he faced to complete five innings, something that didn't seem possible early on.
"The way he settled down through the fourth and fifth inning helped restore order, especially when we got the lead back. One thing you can always say about Chad is that he always competes and gives everything he's got out there," Ellis said. "He's got the ability to pitch out of tough jams."
The Dodgers look to capture the series with a win on Sunday, with Chris Capuano on the hill looking to join Cole Hamels and Lance Lynn as the only seven-game winners in the National League. Left-hander J.A. Happ gets the call for Houston.