LOS ANGELES -- In nine professional seasons, A.J. Ellis never hit more than eight home runs at any level, but he already has five this year in the Major Leagues, including Saturday night's dramatic three-run walk-off blast in the bottom of the ninth inning that gave the Dodgers a 6-3 win over the Astros.
"It was probably the best feeling of my baseball life," said the 31-year-old Ellis. "It was pretty awesome and pretty cool to run around the bases and hear the crowd and cheering. I've gotten to see Andre [Ethier] and Matt [Kemp] do that a lot and it was pretty cool to feel it myself."
Also pretty cool is a 7 1/2-game lead the Dodgers now have over the Giants. With the win, the Dodgers avoided their first three-game losing streak of the season.
A big -- and unexpected -- part of the best record in baseball has been the play of Ellis on both sides of the plate. He's hitting .317, but he's also third on the club with 23 RBIs.
"It is a little surprising," said manager Don Mattingly. "The whole package, he's been great. I can't say I expected five [homers] and 20 [RBIs], but we'll take it. It's just a credit to him. It's good to see, it's a good story, he's one of the guys you root for, a guy that's worked so hard you want him to have success."
The sudden power surge, Ellis said, should be credited to the Triple-A hitting coach of the Seattle Mariners, Jeff Pentland, who was dismissed as the Dodgers hitting coach last summer.
"It's 100 percent Jeff Pentland and what he did with my swing path," Ellis said. "This year Dave Hansen has worked with my lower body and the combination turned me into a Major League hitter."
Ellis' game-winner capped what even Mattingly called "a weird game." In the prelim pitchers duel, Chad Billingsley was all-out to get through five innings in 99 pitches, but that was more efficient than Houston's Bud Norris, who racked up 116 pitches and didn't finish the fifth inning. Billingsley struck out eight and retired the last seven batters, pretty good considering six of the first 10 he faced reached base.
"Both guys had about 85 pitches in the fourth inning," said Mattingly. "The game seemed like a snail's pace, then it was like nobody scored."
Billingsley spotted the Astros a 2-0 lead, the Dodgers halved it on Ethier's RBI double in the third and took the lead on Tony Gwynn's two-run single with two out in the fourth. Houston tied the game in the eighth when Ronald Belisario issued a pair of two-out walks. Kenley Jansen, brought on for a four-out save, blew the chance before getting any outs as Jason Castro doubled off the glove of third baseman Jerry Hairston.
The winning rally started when Ethier led off the inning getting hit on the shoulder by an 0-2 fastball from former Dodgers farmhand Wesley Wright. Houston manager Brad Mills brought Wilton Lopez in to face pinch-hitter Scott Van Slyke, who bunted Ethier to second. James Loney, who already had three hits, was walked intentionally to bring up Ellis.
"With [Lopez], how good he's been all year especially with right-handed hitters, I think that was it," said Mills of his decision. "We wanted to set up a double play. There's everything right there. He just put a nice swing on it, there's no doubt about it."
Ellis launched his fifth home run into the left-field seats and now has a slugging percentage of .517.
"The hours 'Pent' spent, nobody else would have believed in me," said Ellis. "He redid my swing. The changes he made paid dividends. To have somebody work like that, he deserves a ton of credit."
Mattingly, while also crediting the work Pentland and Hansen have done with Ellis, gave the catcher some credit too.
"He had been up and down and up and down, and last year he spoke up for himself," said Mattingly. "He finally said we were sending the wrong guy down [when the Dodgers kept Dioner Navarro over Ellis early in the season]. I think that was huge. I kind of felt that way myself, but he had options. I couldn't sit here and argue with him. I think he said the same thing to Ned [Colletti, general manager]. There comes a point in your career when you say, 'I can play and you guys don't believe it.'"
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.