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Bob Ryan

He's fast becoming a favorite

Texas Rangers righthander Willie Eyre uncorked a wild pitch - it's in the bylaws of the Baseball Writers Association of America that all wild pitches are "uncorked" - and when Jacoby Ellsbury, having reached second via a single and stolen base, was approaching third on the evening of July 2, the 36,778 in attendance at Fenway rose as one, screaming the following:

"You kidding me? He's coming home!" And so he did.

At that moment, the Jacoby Ellsbury legend was born.

And more than 2,000 miles away, a proud college coach was smiling, too.

"I was in Salt Lake City with my assistant Manny Lees," explains Oregon State baseball coach Pat Casey. "We have a player named Joey Wong who was arriving in Boston to play in the Cape League. The host family surprised him by taking him to Fenway Park. Manny gets a text from Joey: 'Coach Lees, Jacoby just scored from second on a wild pitch.' "

We're not used to seeing people score from second base on wild pitches, but perhaps we'd better get used to seeing a lot of things that are new and different as long as Jacoby Ellsbury is wearing a Red Sox uniform.

"He's electric," declares Casey, coach of the two-time defending national champion Beavers. "He does things across the board that make you win."

Casey said that play reminded him of the time in a game against Washington when, with Theo Epstein in attendance (as Casey recalls), Ellsbury scored from first on a single. "But I had started the runner," Casey adds.

"Allard Baird [assistant to the GM] said it best," notes Terry Francona. "Allard says, 'He's got survival skills. He's not just here to be here. He comes to win.' That's very evident by the way he plays the game."

Ellsbury was 2 for 2 with two walks, a stolen base, and that very special run scored as the Red Sox beat the Rangers by a 7-3 score that evening. He was in the midst of his first week in the big leagues.

He was up, down, up again (for one day), and down again before being recalled from Pawtucket for good Sept. 1. Far from being awed or overmatched at being thrust into a playoff race, he batted .361 for the month, hitting safely in 23 of 26 games with six doubles, a triple, three homers, 17 RBIs, 16 runs, and eight stolen bases in eight attempts. And if Coco Crisp was a 9.9 on a fielding scale of 10 this year, which he was, Ellsbury was about a 9.0. With Manny Ramírez out for a prolonged period with his problem oblique muscle, Ellsbury became one of the dancers who indeed "brung" Terry Francona to the postseason.

When he was sent down, it was about roster numbers. From Day 1, it was clear that he belonged in the majors, but it's just not in his nature to complain. Instead, he treated each day with the big club as a blessing. He simply tried to make the most of his experience.

"I learned about preparation," he explains. "There are a lot of great people on this team. I watched them in the cage, working on things that make a good player great. That's what I took away."

None of this surprises Casey, who has charted the progress of the young man from Madras, Ore., since Ellsbury was a sophomore in high school. He had heard from a friend that "there's a kid over there in Madras who's gonna be real good someday," and Casey quickly validated that assessment. "You could see his athleticism and his ability to go get things done," Casey says.

Even as a freshman in the very strong Pac-10, there was never a moment when he looked out of place.

"Of course, as a freshman he might see a 93-mile-an-hour fastball and get overpowered," Casey concedes. "But he could make adjustments, pitch by pitch, even then. His quick-twitch muscles are at the top of the list."

Not impressionable by nature, Casey was willing to make a case for his young phenom.

"I very rarely say things like this, but there was no question for me," Casey says. "I said he was going to be a first-rounder. And I said he is not only going to play in the big leagues, but he is going to be a superstar. He has the humility, the passion, and the athleticism."

The defense was always there, of course. "Great instincts," says Casey, who had a double jolt of excitement Sunday night when he watched his protégé make a superb, it-wasn't-as-easy-as-it-looked grab of a Ryan Garko smash to right-center to end the eighth as a center fielder and then execute a beautiful diving grab of a sinking Kenny Lofton liner for the first out in the ninth as a left fielder.

There are players in all sports around whom things just seem to happen, or, perhaps more to the point, who have the knack of making things happen. This is the beauty of Jacoby Ellsbury. He can go 0 for 4 and still beat you.

Casey cites Game 7 as an example of Ellsbury's ability to disrupt the opposition. Recall the ball he knocked in the direction of Cleveland third baseman Casey Blake that wound up as a leadoff two-base error in the seventh? Casey says that play did not happen in a vacuum.

He goes back to Ellsbury's previous at-bat in the fourth. Jason Varitek was on first when Ellsbury hit a smash to first baseman Garko, who, after groping around for the ball, was able to get a force on Varitek with Ellsbury steaming toward first.

"You think that wasn't in Blake's mind when the ball left Ellsbury's bat the next time up?" Casey inquires. "He knew who was running. And he couldn't make the play."

Red Sox fans were clamoring for Francona to find a space for Ellsbury in the lineup, which he did. There now appears to be no reasons other than the presence of a Game 1 lefty Colorado starter (Jeff Francis) or politics (Coco Crisp's feelings) to take him out. Tito's own survival instincts should tell him that this kid has to play.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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