By: Brian Frank
Mike Ellenbest made his Triple-A debut last Friday night, when he took the mound for the Bisons against the Worcester Red Sox. Ellenbest found out he was being promoted to Triple-A the night before his first relief outing with the Herd.
“It was postgame in Binghamton,” Ellenbest said in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “We were playing the Mets Double-A affiliate. One of the guys came up to me in the clubhouse and asked me for a minute. I went into the coaches office and Coach Czajkowski, who I’ve been with for some time now, broke the news to me. Everybody gave me hugs and congratulated me. It was really cool.”
Ellenbest made the three-hour car ride from Binghamton to Buffalo early in the day on Friday. By Friday night, he was on the Sahlen Field mound facing the Worcester Red Sox.
Ellenbest on the Sahlen Field mound. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
While Ellenbest was warming up in the bullpen during the bottom of the seventh inning, Buffalo rallied for a pair of runs to take a 4-1 lead. The half inning took almost twenty minutes, as Ellenbest looked on waiting to make his Triple-A debut.
“That was a long inning warming up – we scored a few extra runs,” he said. “The nerves didn’t really hit until I made contact with the dirt running from the bullpen to the mound. Big deep breathes. But I was locked in so it wasn’t bad.”
Ellenbest finally took the mound in the top of the eighth – in front of 10,228 fans, the biggest crowd he’d ever pitched in front of. The first Triple-A batter he faced was a player who’s already spent some time in the major leagues – Jarren Duran. In fact, Duran hit his first major-league home run at Sahlen Field last summer when the Red Sox faced the Blue Jays here.
“I started him off with I think two or three changeups,” Ellenbest said. “You know, I’ve been living and dying by my changeup of late. The one thing we talked about with Duran was that you don’t want him to get on because he’s a runner. So I just wanted to attack him with my four seam, but mostly with my changeup – and then kind of surprise him with that fastball and that’s what I did that at-bat. I got a really good batter to strike out.”
After Duran went down swinging, Connor Wong looped a single into right field. But Ellenbest struck out Ryan Fitzgerald and induced Ronaldo Hernandez to ground out to second base to end the inning.
Ellenbest came back out for the ninth inning. Christin Stewart lined a single to right field to lead off the frame, but Ellenbest struck out Jaylin Davis and got Roberto Ramos to ground out to second base. He then got two strikes on Yolmer Sanchez, as the crowd began to cheer, many rising to their feet.
“They were loud for sure,” he said. “In the ninth inning with two outs and two strikes, I definitely heard them out there. To have 10,000 strong, I mean that’s a lot of people. You can definitely feel a little bit of an adrenaline rush. Yeah, it was a cool thing.”
Sanchez flew out to left field to end the ballgame. Ellenbest not only worked two scoreless innings in his Triple-A debut, but he also preserved a Bisons 4-1 win and earned his first Triple-A save.
The road Ellenbest took to Sahlen Field began just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He was born in Parma, Ohio, and attended Medina High School where he played baseball and basketball and grew up an avid Cleveland sports fan.
“When football season comes around, I’ll be glued to the Brown games for sure,” he said. “I’m a big Cleveland Browns fan.”
Ellenbest went on to play college baseball at Division II Saginaw Valley State in University Center, Michigan.
“I came in and I got redshirted – but I took advantage of that situation and I went to every game that I could,” he remembered. “We were told we didn’t have to go to games, but I went to them to see what they were like – see what those hitters were like, how the games flowed, and stuff like that. That first year I worked really hard – especially in the weight room and on pitch development. Then I came back and ended up throwing very well. It was a good experience. Pretty good conference too for it being Division II.”
He had a lot of highlights pitching for the Cardinals, but one extended scoreless innings streak stands out.
“I think it was in 2015, I had a 26 scoreless inning streak, which led into the next season and went up to I think 35 1/3. Having that scoreless inning streak with my name attached to it means a lot to me.”
While playing summer ball in 2016, he found out he’d been selected in the 26th round of Major League Baseball’s June Amateur Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I was in communication with my agent at the time,” he said. “He called me and informed me (to expect to be picked) sometime after the tenth round. I was in Green Bay at the time playing in the Northwoods League.”
As the draft dragged on, Ellenbest headed to the ballpark in Green Bay.
“I had my phone on me and we were shagging during BP. I didn’t get a call, but I had the tracker on the website and I saw my name. I’m standing over around third base. My brother Matt played on the same team, the Green Bay Bullfrogs. I said ‘Matt’ and I raised my hands up and he came running over and gave me a big hug. It was a cool experience.”
Ellenbest was selected in the 2016 June Amateur draft by the blue Jays. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank. The Herd Chronicles
The 6'4" hurler worked his way up through the Blue Jays system – pitching at Low-A Vancouver in 2016 and High-A Dunedin in 2017 – before his progress hit a snag the next season.
“In May of 2018 I was having some complications during spring training with some elbow injuries,” he recalled. “I came back, tried to rehab, and then tore my UCL and had to have Tommy John. I completely tore it. Rehabbed, worked really hard, and got cleared before twelve months. So it was kind of a wild ride but it was quick.”
When he returned from the surgery in 2019, the decision was made to transition from a starting role to being a full-time reliever.
“In ’16 I piggybacked and in ’17 I was a starter – I threw like 120 innings and then after I had Tommy John they said ‘We’re going to convert you’ and I said ‘great’ because before I had Tommy John I was probably topping out at about 92 miles per hour. So I had TJ and I watched guys in spring training, guys that threw hard. I watched their mechanics and kind of critiqued mine to see if I could use my legs more. I did that and came back throwing harder. Last year I was topping out at 96. So I think that was a huge thing, especially with pitch development. My changeup has gotten better. Same with my slider. Everything seemed to just develop better as soon as I started throwing harder. I credit that to my hard work.”
The switch to the bullpen was an immediate success, as he had his best season in professional baseball up to that point. In 22 relief appearances for Dunedin (49.1 IP) he had a 2.42 ERA. He was promoted to Double-A New Hampshire at the end of the season and posted a 1.42 ERA in three games for the Fisher Cats. He pitched so well that the Blue Jays sent him to the Arizona Fall League to compete against other top prospects.
“That was incredible,” he said of pitching in the AFL. “I think that was one of the best experiences that I’ve had in my career. Just being around guys who, most of them are now in the big leagues, and being around guys who just love the game and play hard. It’s such high caliber baseball there. It was very relaxing, but it was also competitive. It was a very good experience.”
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2020 minor-league season to shut down. Ellenbest kept throwing to keep his arm in shape, while working at a pair of country clubs.
“I’m a big golfer. I worked at a country club in Ohio in the summer. Then I went down to Florida and worked at another country club while also getting ready for the 2021 season. I got to get out of the cold weather in the winter for a change and enjoy the nice weather. I threw outside all winter – so that was nice. Working at a country club and getting free golf – you can’t beat that.”
He spent the 2021 season for the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, pitching in 25 games while battling a knee injury throughout the season.
“I tore my meniscus the day before the first game of the season last year and pitched all year on it,” he said.
He had surgery after the season which caused him to start this season a bit late.
“That’s why I started the season on the I.L. this year because I had surgery in October,” he explained.
Ellenbest fired two shutout innings in his Triple-A debut. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
He made one early-season appearance pitching for Dunedin before returning to New Hampshire. His mound appearance in Dunedin came with a major-league catcher rehabbing behind the plate.
“That was my first game appearance after surgery and it was with Danny Jansen. So yeah, that was pretty cool. It was good timing.”
Ellenbest throws a four-seam fastball, slider, changeup, and occasionally a sinker. He considers his changeup to be his best pitch.
“I feel like I can throw that in any count. I have confidence in it to throw it for strikes, in 3-2 counts, righties or lefties, it doesn’t matter to me.”
“In college I threw from a higher arm slot and a lower arm slot. From the lower arm slot I threw a slider and a two-seam, and from the higher arm slot I threw a curveball and a changeup. So after I got drafted I thought I should just can it because I felt like it was too obvious. After that I just worked on stuff. The changeup just developed faster than the slider. So I‘m just kind of hanging with the changeup right now.”
“It took a lot of work, but that comes with all the pitches that I throw. It’s a lot of work to really master a certain pitch and a certain grip. But yeah, just a couple of changes with the changeup, whether it’s finger placement or rotation of the ball in your hand, how you release it. I was toying with it a little bit and I found something that worked for me and I just stuck with it and it just worked.”
He credits his success this season to trusting his changeup more.
“I think that’s the big thing from last year to this year is changeup usage," he said. "I didn’t really use my changeup much last year. This year I’m just trusting it more and throwing it more and letting it do its thing out of my hand.”
The 27-year-old had a 2.16 ERA in seven relief appearances for the Fisher Cats this season before being promoted to Buffalo – where he couldn’t have scripted a better debut – two shutout innings and a save in front of over 10,000 cheering fans.
“It can’t get any better than that,” he smiled. “But I try not to think too far ahead. I just try to come in and do my job and get guys out.”