LOS ANGELES -- Mark Ellis stood at the plate with a 1-2 count and the Dodgers trailing by one in their first game back from the All-Star break.
What happened next -- a two-run homer off of Ellis' bat down the left field line -- wasn't surprising. Ellis was batting ahead of both Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier for the first time in exactly two months. He was bound to see a good pitch or two on the at-bat.
The surprising part was the fact the second baseman was standing at the plate at all.
That is because Ellis is only a couple months removed from coming within hours of losing his left leg during emergency surgery, after being taken out from a slide by St. Louis' Tyler Greene at second base on May 20. A muscle in his leg had been cut, causing bleeding that was trapped by the muscle sheath. Doctors needed to relieve swelling by performing a fasciotomy, a surgery more common for accident victims, not athletes.
Now, after five days in the hospital and two months of rehab, Ellis is back playing every day and getting more comfortable after each game.
"I never even think about it," he says. "It's not even a thought in my mind. I'm just glad to be back on the field."
While the returns of Kemp and Ethier overshadowed Ellis', the veteran has provided a consistent presence in the No. 2 spot and at second base. He came back for the team's final series before the break against Arizona and has played in all six games since.
Batting .257 with one homer, five runs and two RBIs since coming back, Ellis' stats don't pop out. But he is the under-the-rader type of player that has been crucial to the Dodgers' success. Before his surgery, the team was 26-13 and the best in the Majors. In his absence Los Angeles went 20-24 and witnessed a six game lead in the National League West turn to a half-game lead. That lead is now history as the Dodgers trail the Giants in the division. Ellis will be relied on for his consistency and veteran approach with the season winding down.
"To me, he's bread and butter," manager Don Mattingly said. "He solidifies our defense up the middle. He's like a coach on the field."
Whether it's being in the right position defensively, waiting for the right pitch at the plate or moving a runner over, Mattingly said Ellis is invaluable to the team.
With the Dodgers struggling over the last month, the manager was asked daily, before and after games, what the return of Kemp and Ethier was going to bring to the lineup. Most of the time Ellis' name was left out of the question, but Mattingly made sure to mention it in the same breath as his two superstar outfielders.
"I didn't realize how good this guy was until I've [saw] him every day," Mattingly said, looking back on the one-year deal Ellis signed in November. "He's a big part of what we've been missing."
His teammates realize his value, too.
"He plays great defense and he does what it takes to help us win games with the little things, like moving runners up, moving runners over, getting guys where they need to be and getting a big hit in key situations," Kemp said. "It shows a lot why he is so important to our lineup and I'm just glad to have everybody back."
Ellis' return came way ahead of schedule. About 10 days after the surgery he thought Aug. 1 seemed a practical time to return. Never did he think he would be playing rehab games before the All-Star break.
"When you are in the hospital for five days, you don't have a lot of good thoughts going on in your head," he said.
But the veteran got through it. His family was sent to the hospital to be by his side. Mattingly came by the night of the surgery. A friend of his, who had the rare surgery in high school, even emailed him about what to expect, although that prompted Ellis to go online and look up pictures.
"That was probably the worst thing I could have done," he said with a laugh.
Aside from that mistake the rehab process wasn't too difficult for him. While with Oakland he missed all of 2004 with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, so he knows what it takes to get back on the field.
He did nothing for two weeks before starting to work on building back strength in his leg. Then he was back to baseball activities like taking grounders and working in the cage. The last thing he had to work on was going from first to third.
After weeks of that it was off to the Minors for a rehab assignment that was well ahead of schedule. All the while he never reflected on the possibility of almost losing his leg, which has a eight-inch scar as a daily reminder.
"Once you are over it, you are over it," said Ellis, who added he feels great physically after the team's 12-inning win Wednesday. "You go play baseball and have to put it out of your mind and you just have to go out on the field and be who you are and just worry about the game and not about your injury.
"That's something a lot of guys have a hard time learning."
Alex Angert is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.