Exciting return for Ellis
After missing nine games, second baseman returns to lineup
OAKLAND -- Mark Ellis strained his left hamstring late in a May 11 victory at Texas, after which the A's were seven games over .500 and sitting alone atop the American League West standings.
In the nine games Ellis missed while rehabbing, the A's went 2-7 to drop into second place in the AL West.
With Ellis back in the lineup Friday for the opener of a three-game series against the defending World Series champion Red Sox, who came to town with the best record in baseball, the A's rolled to an 8-3 victory.
Coincidence? A's shortstop Bobby Crosby doesn't think so.
That's why he was so jacked up about Ellis' return -- several hours before Ellis tagged a three-run homer to break Friday's game open and provide the kind of steady, subtle and occasionally brilliant defensive play for which he's so admired.
Crosby doesn't blame Oakland's recent woes on Ellis' absence, mind you. But he knows how important his double-play partner is to the team's overall sense of well-being. When it was suggested that Ellis presence represents something of a security blanket for the team, Crosby's eyes lit up in agreement.
"Just looking over at him makes you feel like you have a better chance to win that night," he said. "He could go 0-for-4 and make an error, and he's still probably going to do something to help you win the game."
Ellis, who hit his fourth homer of the year and was flawless in the field Friday, suggested that his forced layoff was the baseball equivalent of torture.
"To have to just sit there and watch is just such a helpless feeling," he said. "To be honest, you feel a little bit guilty, because you know how hard everyone's going, and you're just there doing nothing. It's awful."
A's manager Bob Geren echoed Crosby's feelings on Ellis' return, saying the impact goes well beyond any statistical measures. Ellis was batting .242 with a .328 on-base percentage, three homers, 13 RBIs and a .990 fielding percentage (two errors) before being sidelined.
"He's kind of our quiet leader on the field," Geren said. "He knows where to be and what to do at all times."
Ellis' bat was in the right place at the right time when he connected with a Tim Wakefield knuckleball with two outs in the fourth inning Friday. The three-run rocket bloated what had been a 4-0 lead.
"With [Wakefield], it's always hit and miss," Ellis said. "It's never easy, that's for sure. I actually thought he had a really good knuckleball tonight. ... It might not look like it because of the home runs, but he really did have a good one tonight."
Wakefield had given up a two-run homer to Frank Thomas in the first inning.
"The one I didn't expect was Ellis," Wakefield said. "I threw a good pitch to Ellis, and he hits another three-run homer. That kind of puts us in a hole."
After the Red Sox had cut the lead with a couple of runs in the middle innings, Ellis left his mark on the game defensively with a play that flashed his athleticism and creativity.
With a run in, two out and a runner at first base, Dustin Pedroia flipped a grounder back up the middle that glanced off Oakland starter Rich Harden's leg. Ellis broke to his right, scooped up the ball in stride and, with a leaping junior sky hook of a toss that would have made Magic Johnson proud, made a perfect feed to Crosby at the bag to end the frame.
"It was the only way I could get the ball there," Ellis said with a big smile. "When I went off the field, I was laughing. I don't think I've ever made that throw before. It was like lobbing a grenade."
"It was great," Harden said of the play. "There's not a lot of guys who make that play."
Two innings later, Ellis' instincts came into play as he turned the game's momentum irrevocably in Oakland's favor.
Jacoby Ellsbury had just singled with one out to cut the lead to 8-3, and he appeared to have stolen second base to set up a potentially big inning with Red Sox sluggers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez looming. But Ellsbury slid over the bag, and Ellis, who had taken the throw from catcher Kurt Suzuki, kept his glove on Ellsbury the entire time.
Sure enough, Ellsbury's momentum eventually forced Ellsbury to take his hand off the base, and second-base umpire Jeff Nelson was all over the play, promptly rewarding Ellis with an out call. Ortiz then struck out to end the inning.
"He's the best second baseman in the league, in my opinion," Geren said. "He's a very important part of our defense. ... Mark's one of the smartest players I've ever been around.
"That was a big point in the game right there. It was a big out."
The man up the middle agreed.
"It's standard to keep your glove [on the runner], but I knew he was coming in hard and he slid kind of late," Ellis explained. "It was a big play. With that offense, you never know. Every out's big."
Ellis, who turns 31 on June 6, is in the last year of his contract with the A's and will be a free agent if an extension isn't worked out before the end of the World Series. He's not big on talking about his contract situation, but he's said he'd like to remain in Oakland, and Crosby, signed through 2009, is all for it.
"I'd love to see him stay," Crosby said. "Elly makes my job easier. He's good for the clubhouse, and he's good for the team."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.