By Scott Lauber/Boston Herald:
A few days before he left Phoenix and joined the Red Sox [team stats] for spring training, Jacoby Ellsbury [stats] told his physical therapist to circle July 12 on her calendar.
“He said, ‘Hopefully, you’ll see me back in Arizona for the All-Star Game,’ ” Anna Hartman said yesterday.
Right now, that appears to be a solid bet. As the Red Sox open a three-game series at Yankee Stadium in New York tonight, Ellsbury is batting .299, with 18 doubles, six homers and a league-leading 22 steals. The Sox are averaging 4.9 runs per game, and for that, their leadoff-hitting center fielder is every bit as responsible as middle-of-the-order sluggers Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz [stats].
It’s almost been enough to erase the misery Ellsbury went through last season.
By now, the details have been well-documented. A knee to the midsection in a collision with then-third baseman Adrian Beltre left Ellsbury with at least five cracked ribs. And despite multiple attempts to come back, he played in only 18 games and had his toughness roundly questioned, even by a few teammates.
So, when Ellsbury showed up in her office two days after the regular season ended, Hartman wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I was anticipating he would be a little down about things and that you’d have to be there for him from a mental standpoint,” Hartman said. “It was completely the opposite. He came in and said, ‘Let’s get after it.’ If I hadn’t known before what kind of season he had, I wouldn’t have ever known.”
And for the next four months, she oversaw the rebuilding of Jacoby Ellsbury.
Six days a week, beginning in early October, Ellsbury reported to the Phoenix-based Athletes’ Performance, and in concert with the Red Sox training staff and agent Scott Boras’ office, Hartman put him on a program to rebuild his core without rattling his ribs.
As the bones healed, Ellsbury began more intense exercises to stimulate “trunk stability and thoracic mobility,” Hartman said. Soon, he added a shoulder strengthening program, and by December, after getting cleared by doctors, he was doing rotational exercises that preceded swinging a bat in January.
“Jacoby is a player who is very inquisitive,” said Steve Odgers, executive director of the California-based Boras Sports Training Institute. “He wants to make sure he’s doing the right things and doing the right things well. We had a lot of dialogue. He wanted to know what were the most appropriate steps to take to come back from this.”
Ellsbury’s goal was simple: He wanted to be ready to play from the moment he reported to spring training. While most players pace themselves during the workouts before the Grapefruit League schedule begins, he didn’t want to waste any time in Fort Myers.
The most difficult part, especially for an athlete with track-star speed, was taking it slowly enough that his ribs healed properly before he intensified his workouts. There were times, Hartman said, when she had to pull back the reins.
“I had to get back to where I was, and then, from there, I could start getting into my strength training and all that,” Ellsbury said. “That was the biggest challenge, just starting in a position where I’m not even at where I normally am. There was no time to rest, no time to waste.”
And so, Ellsbury didn’t make vacation plans. When the holidays rolled around, he flew his family to Arizona rather than return to his native Oregon, which would have necessitated missing physical therapy and training sessions.
“His physical therapy visits were up in the 60s and 70s, and he had less than five days missed,” said Hartman, who has worked with Ellsbury for four years. “You can’t ask for better compliance. He was here on Saturdays, even days that weren’t official therapy days. It was really cool to see.”
And now, the Red Sox [team stats] are seeing the results. Ellsbury started slowly, batting .182 with a .262 on-base percentage through 17 games and getting dropped to the bottom of the lineup by manager Terry Francona.
But since being reinstated in the leadoff spot April 22, Ellsbury is batting .337 with a .391 on-base percentage and 30 runs scored. He has at least one hit in 36 of the last 42 games.
Ellsbury insists he never doubted he would regain his health and resume being the dynamic player who stole 70 bases in 2009. And Hartman said Ellsbury projected that confidence before he left Arizona.
“By the end of January, he said, ‘I feel so good. My posture, everything, just feels so good. I haven’t felt this good since I was 12 years old,’ ” Hartman said. “What a great thing to say. All that work, to see it pay off, that’s awesome to see athletes do that.”
And it may just lead him back to Arizona next month.