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Dan Shaughnessy

He made the tough call

Jacoby Ellsbury couldn't come up with this drive to left-center by Ryan Garko -- it went off his glove for a triple -- but contributed an RBI and scored a run in his first postseason start.
Jacoby Ellsbury couldn't come up with this drive to left-center by Ryan Garko -- it went off his glove for a triple -- but contributed an RBI and scored a run in his first postseason start. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

All they were saying was give Jacoby a chance.

For three days, reporters kept asking about Jacoby Ellsbury replacing Coco Crisp in center field for the Red Sox. Boston baseball fans were clamoring for the kid. TV polls were conducted and websites were started.

Manager Terry Francona finally caved yesterday afternoon. He posted a Game 6 lineup with rookie Ellsbury in center field, batting eighth against Cleveland righthander Fausto Carmona.

Ellsbury did well, with an RBI single and a run scored in the Sox' six-run third inning in Boston's eventual 12-2 victory over the Indians.

It was a baseball decision, of course. Big league managers with World Series wins on their résumé do not make moves based on public opinion. Francona simply looked at the numbers and decided it was time for a change. But he had to be aware there might have been a European soccer-style riot in the Fenway stands if he went with Crisp one more day.

The Sox were in a 3-2 series hole entering Game 6 and Crisp is one of the guys who put them there. In his first eight postseason games of 2007, he is hitting .161 with an on-base percentage of .188. He has walked once and struck out nine times. He has scored only two runs. He is batting .143 against the Indians and in a critical moment of Game 5 failed to get a bunt down, then struck out.

Francona will not rip his players. He knows what it's like to struggle at the big-league level. So he didn't embarrass his outfielder by making the announcement Friday. But one didn't need to read the tea leaves to see a change was in the making.

"He's really having a tough time, I agree," said Francona. "Even trying to get the bunt down, you could see him trying maybe to be too fine, do too much. He's gotten himself into some things mechanically where he's not been able to make some adjustments."

Ellsbury got into three of the first five games of the series, and managed to steal second base when Kevin Youkilis had a chance to win Game 2 in the bottom of the ninth. Ellsbury did not get to bat before Game 6, but he certainly wasn't rusty with the RBI single off tough lefthander Rafael Perez in the Sox' third.

Crisp entered as a defensive replacement in the ninth, and took his normal position in center. Ellsbury was moved to left in place of Manny Ramírez.

When Francona met with the media before last night's first pitch, the first question concerned the lineup change.

"I kind of thought we were going to do that," he said. "And those of you that are here locally and every day probably felt that's the way we were leaning. But I hadn't talked to Coco yet and I didn't want to announce something like that and have him get bombarded. I went down and talked to him after the workout and explained to him what we were doing."

Francona believes in staying with the players who got him to the playoffs and angered many fans by sticking with Mark Bellhorn when the quiet second baseman struggled early in the 2004 postseason. Ultimately, the manager's patience was rewarded as Bellhorn got some big hits in the biggest games.

He waited with Crisp as long as he could, but he finally capitulated and said, "You get to a point where - I always talk about doing the right thing, and I felt like this was in the best interest of our ball club."

How did Crisp take the news?

"I didn't expect Coco to jump up and hug me," said Francona. "If I was him, I wouldn't either. So we try to do it correctly and with respect and give him reasons why."

The 24-year-old Ellsbury was drafted out of Oregon State two years ago and advanced rapidly through the Sox system. He started the 2007 season in Double A Portland, moved up to Pawtucket, and came to the big leagues for two stints. In 22 games (15 starts), he hit .353 with three homers and 18 RBIs. He was not caught in nine stolen base attempts. He made spectacular plays in the outfield. He was compared with a young Fred Lynn or Johnny Damon.

Ellsbury is of Navajo descent and was scouted by the Indians when he was in college. They seriously considered drafting him and asked if he would have any problems wearing a cap adorned with the hideous image of Chief Wahoo. Ellsbury said he was not offended by the team name or mascot, but last week he told the Globe, "You can look at it that it's offensive or you can look at it that they are representing native Americans. Usually, I'll take the positive out of it."

"I didn't ask him if he was nervous," said Francona. "I just told him he was playing. If we thought there was going to be an adverse reaction, we wouldn't have played him. I didn't see hives or anything down there. I think he'll be OK."

Ellsbury had the support of the Nation when he was announced before the game. A change had been made.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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