ATLANTA -- For nearly a decade, A.J. Ellis embraced the Minor League lifestyle. He took the long bus rides -- and his uncertain future -- in stride, slowly working his way up through the Dodgers farm system.
All the while, it was the dream of one day having the opportunity currently in front of him with the Dodgers locked in a 1-1 tie with the Braves in the National League Division Series that kept him plugging along. That dream of being an integral part of a postseason run, however, is one that dates much further back than to the day the Dodgers selected the Austin Peay product in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft.
"I think every ballplayer grows up out in their backyard wanting to hit that Game 7 home run or strike out that last batter to win the World Series for their team," Ellis said. "So you're always, as a baseball player growing up, thinking about these kind of moments and what it's going to be like if you ever get a chance. And now I finally have one."
Though Ellis is in the midst of just his second full season as the Dodgers' regular starting catcher, the 32-year-old has had a longer path to the big leagues than most. Taken in the 18th round in '03, Ellis spent his first three professional seasons playing no higher than Class A. He spent the next two years exclusively with Double-A Jacksonville.
In 2008, at the age of 27, Ellis reached Triple-A and really started to hit his stride. After never hitting higher than .269 at any of the lower levels, Ellis posted a .321 average over 84 games with Triple-A Las Vegas and earned a late season callup from the Dodgers.
Yet despite making his big league debut Sept. 15, 2008, Ellis played in just four Major League games that season and eight the following year. From 2010-11, he sported a Dodgers uniform for just 75 total games.
"It's not even just the Minor League stuff, but all the hard work from Spring Training through the season -- it's all a grind, all a battle to get to this point," Ellis said. "Now it's time we're just going to sit back and enjoy it and trust everything we've done to get to this point."
It's no secret within the Dodgers clubhouse that few players have earned the right to enjoy the experience as much as Ellis. Regarded by his teammates and coaching staff as one of the hardest-working players in the league, Ellis has emerged this season not only as a viable big league starting catcher, but also as a leader of sorts for his club.
"It's been awesome working alongside A.J.," said 26-year-old backup catcher Tim Federowicz. "The biggest thing is easily his work ethic. He's got the best work ethic on the team in my mind. He's always in the video room, studying opposing hitters and making sure he knows them inside and out. That's tough to do 162 games and now going into the postseason as well, but he's there doing it every single day."
It's that type of dedication that has also earned Ellis the respect of his pitching staff. Though headed by co-aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Ellis had his work cut out for him when the season began.
The Dodgers spent more than $200 million on their pitching staff this offseason, signing Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, a seven-time All-Star in the Korea Baseball Organization. While the talent on the mound was unquestioned, Ellis had the responsibility of learning how to best work with two new pitchers, one of whom spoke a different language.
"First and foremost, they're pretty easy guys to catch. I can't take much credit there," Ellis said. "They're great command guys who get the ball to both sides of the plate and they also have great secondary pitches. It makes my job back there easy. I have a lot of options, lot of choices, so I can't really screw that up."
His batterymates tend to see it a different way. Take Game 1 of the NLDS, for example, when Kershaw had only four strikeouts and had run his pitch count up to 77 through the first four innings. He went on to complete seven innings, striking out a Dodgers NLDS record 12 batters, including nine of the final 11 he faced.
The turning point, Kershaw said, was Ellis picking up on the fact that Kershaw's fastball command was not up to par on that night and altering the game plan on the fly.
"I give credit to A.J. on that one," Kershaw said. "He picked up on that even before I did and made the necessary adjustments. And that's something he's able to do because he's always so prepared and knows the opponent better than anyone. He's definitely made me a better pitcher and the pitching staff better as a whole."
That's every praise coming from the staff ace, who won the 2011 NL Cy Young Award and finished second in Cy Young voting in '12. Yet this season, Kershaw has, for whatever reason, been even more dominant, posting a career- and Major League-best 1.83 ERA and NL-best 232 strikeouts.
Though Ellis would be the first to divert all the credit to Kershaw, there is no denying he has excelled this season at handling the Dodgers' improved pitching staff. In doing so, Ellis has not only secured his role as the Dodgers' starting catcher, but he's played a pivotal role in positioning himself to achieve an even more significant personal goal.
One day reaching the Majors -- and possibly the postseason -- may have been what motivated Ellis during his time in the Minor Leagues, but potentially hoisting a World Series trophy is what's now motivating him.
"I'm just blessed and fortunate that I've been given this opportunity," Ellis said. "I'm just excited to be here and hopefully I can live out one of my dreams later this month."