College Home Run Leader Surprises Himself : Baseball: UCLA’s Paul Ellis, who had average freshman and sophomore years, has chance to break record set by Mark McGwire in 1984 at USC.
College baseball’s leading home run hitter this season admits he has surprised even himself with his sudden display of power.
“I set some goals at the beginning of the season, and I passed them by mid-season,” UCLA catcher Paul Ellis said. “If at the beginning of the season you were to have told me this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Ellis, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound left-handed hitting junior, has a .355 average with 28 home runs and 81 RBIs in 62 games. He has struck out just 21 times in 234 official at-bats.
In his sophomore season, Ellis hit .281 with four homers and 23 RBIs in 41 games. He hit .281 with one home run and 10 RBIs while playing in 37 games as a freshman.
Ellis is within striking distance of the Pacific-10 Conference home run record of 32, set by USC’s Mark McGwire in 1984. Yes, that’s the same Mark McGwire who’s been a slugging star with the Oakland Athletics since 1987.
Ellis’ chances of surpassing McGwire are contingent on UCLA’s success in the postseason. The 20th-ranked Bruins are one of six teams competing in the NCAA Midwest Regional Tournament at Wichita, Kan., beginning Friday. UCLA, 39-24, faces South Alabama, 41-18, in its first game.
Should the Bruins win the tournament, they’ll qualify for the College World Series that begins June 1 at Omaha. UCLA hasn’t played in the College World Series since 1969.
Ellis said he hoped he would hit .320 this season with 15 homers and 50 or more RBIs.
“It’s been a real big change,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any one thing I can really pinpoint. I’m stronger this year. I had surgery on my right shoulder last summer; I had a torn labrum I got in a collision at home plate. The rehabilitation made me a lot stronger.”
Ellis, who is from San Ramon, Calif., said that before this season he was a whipping boy of sorts for UCLA Coach Gary Adams.
“He’d tell me I wasn’t aggressive enough during the games, that I kind of left my swings in batting practice,” Ellis said. “In batting practice, I could hit homers whenever I wanted.
“One day during the fall season, Coach Adams sat there and yelled at me for about 10 minutes in front of the whole team because I had taken a pitch he thought I should have hit. He got his message across.
“That was in the middle of fall season. I had a terrible fall season. The rest of the fall, I swung at everything. It had to get worse before it got better.”
Ellis said he didn’t resent Adams’ tactics. “I knew it was for my own good,” he said. “In batting practice, I could get up there and hit them a long ways. Four homers in a season for a power hitter, that’s not enough. He was trying to get the most out of me. He knew he wasn’t getting that the first two years.”
How about this year?
“Early in the season, I had 13 home runs in 17 games; he wouldn’t even talk to me,” Ellis said of Adams. “He didn’t want to stop what was happening so he’d pretty much avoid me. He said he didn’t want to ruin a good thing going.”
Ellis, 21, has yet to be drafted by a big-league team. That figures to change June 4 when the spring baseball draft is held. Ellis figures to be picked in the first three or four rounds.
“I hope to leave after this year. That’s my plan,” he said. “From what I’ve heard, it should work out that way.”
And perhaps it’ll work out that Ellis will someday join former UCLA catchers Don Slaught (Pittsburgh Pirates) and Todd Zeile (St. Louis Cardinals) in the big leagues.