|Jacoby Ellsbury lets out a celebratory howl after scoring from first on Julio Lugo's third-inning double. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)|
Front and center for Ellsbury
Terry Francona left the telling to bench coach Brad Mills. The Red Sox manager didn't feel the need to relay the news - that Jacoby Ellsbury would be starting Game 6 of the American League Championship Series - to the rookie. He didn't expect Ellsbury to be nervous ("I don't see hives or anything down there," he joked), and he knew the center fielder might be able to affect the game in ways Coco Crisp had been unable to do in the postseason.
But, contrary to those expectations, Ellsbury did allow that his nerves had jumped a bit upon learning of his insertion into the lineup. Probably natural for his first postseason start, especially coming in an elimination game at Fenway Park.
"You know, I'm anxious," Ellsbury said before the game. "There's nerves. But I think that's good. That keeps you alert, keeps you on your toes. I think it's a positive."
Boy was it ever. Ellsbury looked right at home. After grounding to the pitcher in the first, he sliced a run-scoring single to left and scored from first on Julio Lugo's double during Boston's six-run third inning. In the fourth, he ripped a drive to the gap in right-center but was robbed of extra bases by Grady Sizemore, who made a nifty diving catch to end the inning.
As many had suspected - and fans had demanded - the switch was made with the Red Sox facing Indians righthander Fausto Carmona. Francona did say the team considered putting Ellsbury into the lineup in Game 4, when righty Paul Byrd was on the mound, but decided against it based on a couple of factors, including lefthander C.C. Sabathia's start the next day (which would have meant going back to the switch-hitting Crisp).
Although Francona hinted at the change in his comments to reporters Friday, he said he did not want to announce it before sitting down with Crisp, who has appeared completely off at the plate in recent games. His defense has remained steady, but he has five hits and nine strikeouts in the postseason, and is hitting .161. He is expected to be used in the role Ellsbury has played, a late-inning defensive or base-running threat.
Ellsbury represents the promise of a top prospect who made a decided push in getting Boston to the postseason. As Francona often says, while it's a bit early to provide Ellsbury with a bust in Cooperstown, it's just as hard to deny the promise he has shown - in everything from his speed, to his offense, to his defense.
"Allard Baird said in one of our meetings, 'This kid has survival skills,' " said Francona of the assistant to the general manager. "I think what he meant by that is kind of like a [Dustin] Pedroia; he's not up here for the ride, he's up here to win.
"When you get a young player like that, that's pretty special. You can get a guy playing and maybe get some hits that help you. But when you get a young kid that seems to understand Boston, what every game means, that has a chance to make him even a better payer."
And despite his claim of nerves, Ellsbury seemed his normal self as he rushed out to shag balls during batting practice, then as he jogged in to speak with reporters. He spoke about how - as he was ready to get his chance - there were 25 guys on the roster who were as prepared to do whatever they could to help the club.
"I'm feeling good," he said. "I've just been preparing since we started the postseason. It feels good to be a starter.
"It's nice they have confidence in me to get the job done. And I have confidence in myself to do the same."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.