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Ellis, second-ranked Cards on a roll as momentum builds down the stretch for NCAA postseason play

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE — After practice Monday afternoon, Drew Ellis hit the links for a round of golf with a few of his University of Louisville baseball teammates, one of the ways he tries to relieve the pressure of being one of the top players on one of the best college teams in America.

“I try to stay relaxed, stay as loose as possible and just have fun with the guys,” Ellis says. “I try not to take it too serious because it’s a kid’s game, a fun sport. If you’re not having any fun playing baseball, you’re playing for the wrong reasons.”

Ellis’ loosey-goosey approach certainly appears to be working. Prior to Monday’s workout he learned that he had been named National Player of the Month for April by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, the second such honor for a UofL player this season (pitcher/first baseman Brandon McKay earned February’s award).

Ellis, the No. 2 Cardinals’ starting third baseman, hit .455 (30-for-66) in 19 games with five doubles,a triple and eight home runs, driving in 22 runs and compiling a .532 on-base percentage (UofL Athletics Photo)

Ellis, the No. 2 Cardinals’ starting third baseman, hit .455 (30-for-66) in 19 games with five doubles,a triple and eight home runs, driving in 22 runs and compiling a .532 on-base percentage.

But that’s nothing unusual — he has been a key performer every month for the Cards (42-6), who will carry an 11-game winning streak into Tuesday’s 6 p.m. game against No. 25 Vanderbilt (29-18) in Jim Patterson Stadium.

On the season, Ellis, a 6-2, 210-pound junior from across the Ohio River in neighboring Jeffersonville, Ind., leads UofL with a .393 average to go along with 45 RBI (one less than co-leaders McKay and Devin Hairston), 16 doubles, 45 runs and a .732 slugging percentage.

(While Ellis is only a sophomore eligibility-wise, he is a junior in school and thus eligible for the draft this year and UofL lists its players’ class based on school year rather than eligibility).

“Drew is what we call our guy with edge,” head coach Dan McDonnell says. “He’s been that guy all year. You’ve got to have somebody in that dugout that’s playing with some serious edge. And edge is attitude, it’s confidence, it’s competitiveness, it’s toughness. And he’s got it.

“I’m really pleased for Drew because like a lot of guys in our program, we talk about that growth mindset and he is right at the front of it. Guys that get better each year, willing to make adjustments, willing to do what it takes to be a good or great player and Drew is one of those guys with that growth mindset. He’s become a great player.”

As McDonnell noted, Ellis has progressed in each of his three seasons with Louisville. He redshirted as a freshman, then started last year as the backup third baseman behind eventual third-round Major League draft pick Blake Tiberi. He was too valuable as a hitter to keep on the bench, so McDonnell moved him to the outfield, where he made 32 starts and batted .309 with three homers and 22 RBI.

He has gained about 30 pounds since his senior season in high school and, batting fifth behind McKay (.389, 15 homers), gives the Cards one of the most dangerous one-two punches in the nation.

Ellis, a lifelong UofL fan who committed between his freshman and sophomore year at Jeff, says he lived in the gym during his redshirt season and that a rigorous weight-lifting schedule, including 6 a.m. workouts, helped him add strength and bat speed. Then there’s the mental aspect.

“I just show up ready to play,” Ellis says. “The coaches instill competitiveness into us and I think that has a lot to do with the success the team’s having. We just try to do our thing. We know we’re a great team, it’s just putting all the pieces together at the right times.”

As for the McKay-Ellis back-to-back wrecking crew, Ellis says: “It’s got to be at the top. I’d say it’s the best 4-5 in the country. You’ve got Brendan who’s pushing his way to be the No. 1 draft pick overall and he’s special to watch. It’s extremely cool to play behind him.”

Ellis is also enjoying his battle with McKay for the team home run title. With eight regular season games remaining, only two homers separate the pair, but there’s plenty of time remaining because the Cards figure to have a lengthy postseason run in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

“There’s a little friendly competition going on,” Ellis says. “We talk about it a little bit. Brendan’s awesome. “The Toledo game, he hit (a homer) and was one behind and I told him, ‘You won’t hit another one,’ and he wound up tying me. Now he’s two ahead, but I’m going to catch up soon.”

The Cards will need both Ellis and McKay to continue playing well to help them be successful with a challenging closing schedule in the next two weeks.

Including Vandy, UofL’s last eight games will come against teams in the top-30 RPI that are contending for NCAA spots.

The back-to-back ACC Atlantic Division champs have a weekend series against No. 8 Clemson, then will play at Indiana on May 16 and host Florida State in the final homestand May 18-20. UofL holds a four-game lead over the Tigers in the Atlantic race.

“You’re going to be playing good ACC teams every year and we always play good non-conference games in the middle of the week,” McDonnell says. “We just want to continue to get better, enjoy the competition, go out there and compete and win or lose, learn from these games and hopefully use it for the postseason.”

UofL will have the advantage of playing at home for the ACC Tournament, which will be held for the first time at Louisville Slugger Field May 23-28.

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