KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The ball reached the grassy berm in center field in a few seconds. Power. 411 feet worth. The night before, Jacoby Ellsbury had restored his fleet-footed reputation with two stolen bases. And now his power had returned.
Having not hit a home run since June 15, and never off a lefthander in the major leagues, Ellsbury slammed a three-run shot off Ron Mahay in the seventh inning last night, powering the Red Sox to an 8-2 win over the Royals in the rubber game of a three-game series. That's two straight multihit games for Ellsbury - he finished with three hits last night - and maybe a sign that he's heading toward recapturing the leadoff spot in the order.
"I hate that term, but I'll tell you what, he's swung the bat good," manager Terry Francona said, in response to a question about whether Ellsbury had turned the corner. "I'm sure he feels better about himself. The approach is there. He's getting to some pitches, swinging at strikes. Yeah, I think certainly that better days are ahead for him."
Ellsbury's assessment of his recent adjustments? "Be early," he said. "Be early to the ball and get a pitch I can drive. Sounds pretty simple.
"There's nothing wrong with my swing. My swing is fine. Just a matter of being on time, being ready to hit."
But the increasing reality for this Red Sox team is that it can no longer simply rely on its 3-4 hitters, as it has so often in the past. David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez anchored the Sox' offense for years. Now? Not so, with Ramírez in Hollywood and Ortiz not back to form after a wrist injury.
As important, if not more so, is pitching. The Sox got a stellar performance from Josh Beckett Tuesday night, followed by one last night from Tim Wakefield, who has pitched well all season and deserves better than his 7-8 record. Eight runs helped in that regard, allowing Francona to get work for his relievers headed into today's off day.
"It felt great," said Wakefield. "It was welcome support, that's for sure."
And it led to the Sox' fifth win in their last six games. While they were against also-rans Oakland and Kansas City, it didn't lessen the impact of keeping up with the hot Rays. In each of the five wins, the opposition scored no more than two runs, for a total of nine.
"The key, the key, the key of this is pitching," Alex Cora said for emphasis. "That's why we had that lead last year. The offense was great, then you start putting those starts, like seven innings, seven innings, seven innings. Everything starts falling where it should be."
With three runs in the fifth inning, sparked by a two-run double to straightaway center by No. 2 hitter Jed Lowrie, the Red Sox took the lead on Kansas City, which had been playing well before the Sox arrived. But that lead could have come earlier.
In the first inning, Kevin Youkilis was hit on the right wrist by a pitch from Luke Hochevar, loading the bases for Mike Lowell. Lowell, however, lined out to the pitcher, and Youkilis was caught off first for a double play that ended the inning.
That was the end of the evening for Youkilis, who was replaced at first base in the bottom of the inning by Sean Casey.
The Sox' offensive onslaught, which began in Tuesday night's win (also by an 8-2 score), continued in the sixth with a two-out, two-run single by J.D. Drew, and was followed in the seventh by Ellsbury's three-run shot.
Not that that was Ellsbury's only contribution.
With Wakefield having retired 12 of the first 13 Royals - the exception a first-inning, two-out single by Mark Teahen - the fifth inning was far less pristine. It started with consecutive singles by Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, the latter going under the glove of a diving Cora at second base. After John Buck struck out, Ross Gload drove a two-run single past Lowell at third.
The inning could have been much worse for the Sox. Ellsbury saved a run with a sliding catch of Mitch Maier's fly into short center, a play on which Ellsbury nearly got run over by Lowrie and Cora. Ellsbury slid, caught the ball, tumbled, then stuck out his glove to show the umpires he had held on. It was the second out of the inning, and Wakefield followed by getting Mike Aviles to fly out to deep left.
"Got a great read on the ball," Ellsbury said. "It's a big, big outfield, 410 to center. Just running in, I wasn't sure if I could get to it and I saw Lowrie coming pretty hard and dove for the ball. I kind of tucked up, thinking we might collide. Luckily, we didn't."
Wakefield was wowed. "Unbelievable," he said of Ellsbury. "The home run wasn't bad, either."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.