Drew Ellis has grown a lot since being a 12-year-old on the Jeffersonville all-stars who played in the 2008 Little League World Series. He has also grown a lot just since he played for Jeffersonville High School three seasons ago.
Ellis has spent his first few years at the University of Louisville bulking up and learning the ropes, and the redshirt sophomore is now hitting his stride as the power-hitting, every-day third baseman for the No. 4 Cardinals (12-0), who will open Atlantic Coast Conference play Friday with the start of a home weekend series against Pittsburgh.
The 6-foot-2 Ellis has gained 28 pounds of mostly muscle since his senior year of high school and is now a 208-pound force in the middle of the lineup, batting fifth behind two-way star Brendan McKay.
“It’s an awesome feeling to show up to the field every day and not worry about whether you’re going to be in the lineup,” said Ellis, who plays first base on the nights that McKay pitches. “… Stepping into that role, I’ve had a lot of success early in the season, and hopefully I can continue that.”
Ellis, who believes he’s also a faster runner than he was in high school, is hitting .422 and leads the team in homers (four, tied with McKay), RBIs (17), doubles (five) and total bases (34, tied with McKay). He’s reached base in every game and gotten a hit in all but one.
McKay, who is an early favorite for national player of the year honors, is batting .613, putting opposing pitchers in a precarious spot of dealing with him and Ellis back-to-back.
“It’s beneficial for both of us,” Ellis said, “because you’ve got to pick one of us to pitch to. If it’s two outs, do you walk Brendan and put a base runner on and get to me? Or do you try to go at Brendan and try to minimize the damage against a guy who’s hitting .620? It’s awesome hitting behind Brendan, because every time I get on deck I’m ready to go to the plate, because the law of averages says he’s getting a hit six out of 10 times.”
Previously, Ellis was U of L’s backup third baseman behind slugger and eventual third-round draft pick Blake Tiberi, but Ellis’ bat was too good for McDonnell to keep him on the bench. Ellis said he asked McDonnell several weeks into the season what he could do to get himself into the lineup, and the coach decided to start using him in left field.
He finished the year with 32 starts, including 30 in the outfield, batting .309 with three homers and 22 RBIs.
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Third base, however, is Ellis’ natural position, and it’s where he believes his professional future lies. He played mostly shortstop in high school, but McDonnell told him early on that the staff projected him to be a power-hitting third baseman and wanted to transform his body into one.
The Cards redshirted Ellis his first season in 2015, and though it was difficult not to play, he acknowledges it was also beneficial. Ellis said he lived in the gym during that redshirt season, adding about 12-13 pounds with a rigorous weight-lifting schedule, including 6 a.m. workouts.
In the moment, on a day-to-day basis, he didn’t think much about the changes in his physique, but whenever he reconnected with friends whom he’d not seen in a long time, they’d all say, “Holy cow, you look big,” Ellis recalled, and he said it made him feel good to know that his hard work was making a noticeable difference.
Last summer, he hit 11 home runs in the Northwoods League, a collegiate league in the Upper Midwest, and it has taken only 12 games in 2017 for him to exceed his home run total from last season at U of L.
Ellis said with his added strength and bat speed that pitches that jammed him in previous years he can now push over the infield for hits, and he said balls that used to go to the warning track are now getting over the fence.
“I feel really good right now, and I’m barreling a lot of balls up,” he said, “and even the balls I don’t barrel up are still hit pretty hard. Even the balls I don’t catch all the way can still have a chance to go out. I think that’s a big part of the physical strength aspect of it.”
Ellis takes pride in being a local player at U of L. He grew up a Louisville fan and remembers attending the Cards’ first NCAA super-regional series against Oklahoma State in 2007. He went to U of L baseball camps as a kid, and he committed to the Cards as a sophomore in high school.
He’s used to having a big personal cheering section of at least five or six – and sometimes as many as 12 – friends and relatives at games. His great-grandmother always listens on the radio.
Ellis has his sights set on helping the Cards make it back to the College World Series, but until they do, his trip to the Little League World Series remains probably his greatest experience as a baseball player. As a 12-year-old, he got to play in front of 20,000 fans. Reporters wanted to talk to him. Fans wanted his autograph.
“You’re treated like a major-leaguer,” he said.
The Jeff team, which also had current U of L pitcher Chandler Dale, went 0-3 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, including two one-run losses. Ellis became the only pitcher in LLWS history to throw a no-hitter but still lose – a distinction he describes with a chuckle as “cool but not so cool.”
“At the time, you’re bummed out because you didn’t win,” he said. “But looking back on it, there’s no comparison to that (experience).”