TAMPA — Plant High junior Ryan Ellis’ role entering the season was clear. He would handle the Panthers’ talented pitching staff featuring University of Florida commit Jake Woodford and Florida Atlantic signee Stephen Chamblee, while providing a little help offensively from the bottom of the lineup.
Ellis, a second-generation catcher whose father, Paul, had a standout career at UCLA before playing seven seasons in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, settled into his role hitting eighth or ninth.
However, that plan changed as Ellis began the season with tremendous offensive production, prompting a move to the middle of the lineup.
“It was an easy decision once he started to swing the bat as well as he has,” Panthers coach Dennis Braun said. “I thought we should see if we could get a little more RBI help out of him and obviously it has worked.”
Ellis has at least one hit in 13 of the past 15 games. In a scoreless region quarterfinal on Thursday, Ellis doubled in a run to spark the Panthers to a 10-0 win over St. Petersburg. He’ll enter Tuesday night’s semifinal with a .333 average and 17 RBIs as Plant (23-5) hosts Bloomingdale at Wade Boggs Field.
“Braun put me in the spot and it just kind of grew on me,” Ellis said. “I said, ‘All right, I’m in the No. 4 spot so I have to produce,’ and I started putting the work in and I guess it’s working out.”
The first five hitters in Plant’s order hold at least a .333 batting average, led by Kyle Tucker, who boasts a .425 average, a state-leading nine home runs and Hillsborough County-leading totals in RBIs (35) and runs (33).
“Everything is kind of built around Tucker, so I kind of envisioned Ellis down there at the bottom and having him get on some if he had a decent year, and then we could have a pinch-runner on in front of Tucker,” Braun said. “But then (Ellis) was just having too good of a season and I needed him up in the middle.”
Leadoff hitter Cooper Dickens (.337) has set the table for Tucker with 30 hits, and he has scored 28 runs. Chamblee, who switches from the mound and shortstop with Woodford, is hitting .385 with 17 RBIs and 14 runs from the No. 3 spot. Matt Vaka (.333, 22 runs, 17 RBIs) and Jake Bak (.263, 16 runs, 13 RBIs) also have been a big part of the offense, which averages 6.5 runs a game.
The lineup has even had the spark Braun hoped Ellis would have at the bottom, as No. 9 hitter Carter Leslie is hitting .302 with 17 runs scored, while Dean Herman has provided speed running for Ellis and has scored 16 runs.
The support offensively is not lost on the pitchers.
“It’s a phenomenal feeling to know I can just go after guys and not worry about anything,” Woodford said. “To know that my offense and this defense is behind me, lets me be really comfortable out there.”
As for his planned role, Ellis has handled the talented staff as Woodford leads the way with a 10-1 record, with a 0.43 ERA and 73 strikeouts. Chamblee is 7-1 with a 1.06 ERA and 43 strikeouts.
In fact, the duo’s success has meant only 25-plus innings for Zach Rose (2-1, 0.28 ERA, 19 strikeouts), who earned a complete-game win against Jefferson in the Saladino Tournament final.