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Dan Shaughnessy

Ellsbury on the fast track

Email|Print| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / March 4, 2008

JUPITER, Fla. - He is the next one, the can't-miss kid of Boston sports, the player fans didn't want the Red Sox to trade - even when Johan Santana was on the block.

He is Jacoby Ellsbury, maybe the fastest player in Red Sox history, a guy who can score from second on a wild pitch, a guy who can hit .353 in a 33-game sample at the end of the 2007 season, a guy who can lead off in a World Series game and go 4 for 5.

He is electricity on a baseball diamond, a neon god in a dugout of mere mortals. He could be the next Fred Lynn, maybe more. Johnny Pesky this spring actually said he thinks Ellsbury could wind up being as good as Ted Williams.

Whoa, there, Johnny. Get back, Mr. Paveskovich. Come in out of the sun for a spell.

With all this hype and small-sample performance comes celebrity gossip, endorsement opportunities, and the adulation of a Nation. It's a lot for a kid who has not yet been named a member of the starting lineup.

"It's all new," Ellsbury said yesterday morning, while standing in the visitors clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium. "I used to laugh about it when there was a lot of stuff said and written about other people. Now I'm in it.

"Some of that stuff is true, some of it is not. But you can't read too much into it and think about it, even though it is pretty funny at times what people will say."

In theory, Ellsbury is battling incumbent Coco Crisp for the starting center field position. We all know better. The Sox can't come out and say it, but they are trying to trade Crisp, and if no deal is struck, Coco is going to the bench. There's no way Ellsbury comes to Fenway to serve as a fourth outfielder.

The torch officially was passed when Terry Francona - pacifying Sox fans who were threatening to burn down the ballpark - finally benched Crisp and put Ellsbury into the starting lineup for Game 6 against the Indians in the ALCS. Ellsbury started the final six postseason games, all wins. In 11 postseason games, he batted .360 with four doubles, four RBIs, eight runs, three walks, and two stolen bases.

Coco played a great center field for the Sox last summer, but his bat has been soft for two seasons and there's simply no denying Ellsbury his shot this year.

A little awkward, no?

"Coco and I talk, but we never mention anything about who's going to start or anything like that," said Ellsbury. "We know that competition is going to make us better individually and better as a team. Whoever wins the spot, wins the spot. I think that's kind of how we both view it. He's been very helpful from Day One when I met him last year in spring training."

Francona is the ace of diplomacy on this one. There's simply no way the manager is going to disrespect Crisp, who has been a willing, loyal worker in his two seasons with the Sox. Ever the player's manager, Tito won't even acknowledge that there are two guys battling for one job.

"I don't think that's probably the proper way to say it, regardless of who starts on Opening Day," said the manager. "They're good players, they do too much to help us win games. I usually feel like those things work themselves out, but the guy that doesn't play on Opening Day, it's not like he's relegated to . . . we wouldn't let that happen. I don't want it to happen. Whoever plays, we like 'em both."

Ellsbury made the trip across the state to bat leadoff against the Marlins yesterday. He was grazed on the shoulder by the first pitch of the game from rookie lefty Andrew Miller. With one out, he stole second on the third pitch to Dustin Pedroia. In the second inning, Ellsbury drove home the Sox' first run with a bases-loaded sac fly to right. He struck out swinging in the fifth, then reached on an error in the seventh.

Most of you know his story. Ellsbury is the first Native American of Navajo descent to play in the majors. He grew up in Oregon, won an NCAA championship at Oregon State, was drafted in 2005, and seemed to play better every time he was moved up in the system. He runs the 60 in 6.27 seconds. He's 24.

Any explanation for playing better at higher levels?

"Being a patient hitter; as you go up the ladder, I think the pitchers are probably more around the plate, so that can be easier in a way," he said. "The pitchers can locate, and if you swing at a lot of pitches, they can eat you alive, so it's a fine line.

"The umpires are more consistent so you can take a pitch and have a pretty good idea of what they are going to call sometimes. With the consistencies of the umpires and the consistencies of the pitchers, once you move up the ladder, it's better."

Ellsbury is 6 feet 1 inch, weighs 185, and leads off. He hit three homers in 116 big league at-bats last year, and does not figure to become a cleanup hitter. But he wants you to know he has power.

"They always say power, it's the last thing to come," he said. "I'm not going to go out there and try to hit home runs. I just try to hit line drives.

"But I'm going to hit a few homers. I'm not going to have none. I hit three last year in a short period. Am I going to be a home run hitter, where I hit 50? Probably not, but I'm going to hit a few."

His girlfriend and two brothers were at the World Series when he became a national sensation in October. Like everyone else, they were wondering what would happen when Ellsbury's name was bounced around during the Santana sweeps period.

"I got a lot of phone calls from family and friends," said Ellsbury. "I just stayed focused and didn't worry about it because I had no control of the situation. Wherever I was going to go, I was going to give that team 100 percent.

"I talked to [fellow Sox prospect] Jed Lowrie because he was mentioned in the trade. We were like, 'Get your jacket ready,' and stuff like that, but that was it. I came back for one appearance in Boston and Tito just told me to continue to work hard. He knew it was out of my hands."

No deal was made. Santana is with the Mets. And Red Sox Nation is happy.

"I know I can just go out there and play as well as I can," Ellsbury said. "I put in a lot of work in the offseason and hopefully I'll reap benefits of the hard work. I know it's baseball and you're going to have times when you're going really well and times when you're not going as hot as you would like. I try to stay pretty even keel throughout, so when you don't have your best game, you have that level head. Same thing when you have a 4-for-4 game."

We remember none of the bad times. We think of Jacoby Ellsbury and see him getting four hits in a World Series game. The upside is infinite. Expectations are off the charts. All Ellsbury need do now is play like Joe DiMaggio and everyone will be happy.

Should be no problem, right?

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

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