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Red Sox Notebook

Ellsbury's slump may force a shuffle

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / July 21, 2008

ANAHEIM, Calif. - David Ortiz took a day off from his rehab assignment yesterday, but is scheduled to resume play tonight in Portland, Maine, for the Double A Sea Dogs. With home runs in each of his first three games, Ortiz has given no reason to doubt he will be back in the Sox lineup when the Yankees arrive for a three-game set beginning Friday night at Fenway Park.

Ortiz's return may have broader implications on the lineup than Terry Francona writing Ortiz's name back in the No. 3 spot and dropping J.D. Drew back to seventh. It may give Francona an opportunity to address the alarming decline in production from rookie leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury.

When Ellsbury looked at a called third strike in the third inning then whiffed again to end yesterday's 5-3 loss after an 0 for 5 day, it was the sixth straight game in which he had struck out at least once. In his first 25 games this season, Ellsbury struck out just seven times in 92 plate appearances and walked 13 times. He had an on-base percentage of .396.

In his last 26 games, Ellsbury has struck out 22 times in 119 plate appearances, and walked just four times. He still leads the league in stolen bases with 35, but with a .234 on-base percentage over the last 26 games, the chances to run have been few, and he has just one stolen base and has been caught stealing three times in that span. He has not hit a home run in his last 28 games, and has just one in 48 games. He also has knocked in just five runs in his last 35 games.

"We're a different team when he's on base - that's stating the obvious," Francona said after the loss yesterday. "There's no doubt when he's getting on two or three times a game, we're a different team."

Francona continues to insist Ellsbury's slump is not related to the wrist injury suffered in May.

"He had a very good swing on that ball he hit to Vladi," Francona said of the seventh-inning liner that Angels right fielder Vladi Guerrero dropped for an error, allowing Coco Crisp to score the go-ahead run. "He's just going through a tough time. He doesn't seem to be pressing. He understands his responsibility and has handled himself pretty well."

Simply replacing Ellsbury with Crisp does not appear to be the answer. Crisp is hitless in his last 20 at-bats.

A more plausible scenario might be for Francona to revert back to the lineup with which he opened the season, with Dustin Pedroia leading off and Kevin Youkilis hitting second, while dropping Ellsbury down in the order and inserting Drew in the fifth or sixth spot, depending on whether Francona would want to tamper with Mike Lowell's production out of the No. 5 spot.

Pedroia, batting out of the No. 2 hole, has been among the hottest hitters in baseball for better than a month; he had three more hits yesterday, his fifth straight multiple-hit game and seventh in his last eight games. He is batting .454 (59 for 130) in his last 30 games, and has hit safely in his last 21 road games (42 for 92, .456) dating to May 31. That ties Manny Ramírez and Dwight Evans for second longest road streak by a Sox player since 1956. Only Nomar Garciaparra, who hit in 24 road games in a row in 1998, has had a longer streak.

Youkilis, meanwhile, was 0 for 3 yesterday but is batting .358 (37 for 103) in his last 29 games, while driving in 28 runs in that span. He also homered in each of the first two games here, giving him four in his last seven games and a career-best 17, with more than a third of the season left to be played.

If Francona did not want to disrupt the run production he's getting from Youkilis, Drew is another potential candidate to hit out of the No. 2 spot. The All-Star Game MVP has cooled off from his torrid June (.337, 12 HRs, 27 RBIs), batting .267 (12 for 45) in his last 12 games, but his ability to work the count and take his walks make him well suited for the No. 2 hole.

"Just flip-flopping doesn't make much sense," Francona said when asked about possible lineup changes. "It's hard to make out a lineup when guys aren't hitting. It's a situation where it's real hard to be patient. If I thought it would help to move somebody somewhere else, I certainly would do it, but at some point you have to get hits."

Rookie reinforcements
Justin Masterson's apprenticeship as a reliever in the minor leagues turned out shorter than anticipated. The Sox yesterday placed reliever David Aardsma on the 15-day disabled list (strained left groin) and recalled Masterson from Pawtucket, where he was making a PR appearance on behalf of the club yesterday when he got the call from manager Ron Johnson that his presence was required in Anaheim.

Masterson had made just three relief appearances for the PawSox since being optioned July 7. He pitched a scoreless inning in each of his first two appearances, before allowing two runs in 1 1/3 innings against Toledo Thursday.

"I'd like to think [my stuff] lends itself to any role," Masterson said. "Hopefully, I get a lot of ground balls. I'd like to think I'll be effective either way."

Aardsma said he had been trying to pitch through the injury, which occurred, he said, on the last pitch he threw July 8 against the Twins. He had made two appearances since, including a third of an inning Friday in which he gave up a hit and a walk.

"I decided to throw to see how it goes," Aardsma said. "But I was throwing 91 to 93 [miles an hour]. It was kind of bothering me. I took the break, threw a bullpen Thursday, and it felt really, really good. Then I went out there Friday night, and it was grabbing me every throw. The problem was just exploding. I can go out and throw 75 percent, it's not going to bother me. But when I get to the end of my long stride, the explosion part, it bothered me. We know it's not anything major, so we'll try to let it rest. That's what it needs, rest."

Lowell spinner?
Lowell's second-inning single snapped an 0-for-15 slide . . . Crisp stole second base in the seventh inning yesterday, making Angels opponents 29 for their last 29 in stolen-base attempts . . . Jon Lester, who hasn't pitched since July 8, draws the start tonight against Seattle. Francona jiggered his rotation coming out of the break to give Lester, who leads the Sox staff with 125 innings, the extra rest. Lester, who hails from Puyallup, Wash., near Seattle, has a 0-0 record and 8.10 ERA in two previous starts against the Mariners, both at Safeco Field. He lasted just five innings in both starts . . . PawSox owner Ben Mondor, former PawSox manager Joe Morgan, and former PawSox outfielder Jim Rice (the last player to win the International League Triple Crown in 1974) were inducted into the International League Hall of Fame yesterday . . . Top pitching prospect Michael Bowden, 21, is scheduled to make his Triple A debut tonight for Pawtucket. Bowden has been on the DL with a strained calf. Bowden was 9-4 with a 2.33 ERA in 19 starts this season for Portland and was named to the Eastern League All-Star team . . . Masterson said Ortiz provided the postgame spread each night he was in Pawtucket. One night, "Latin night," included goat, Masterson said.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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