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Ellsbury wins popular vote in Red Sox nation

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 24, 2009
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WASHINGTON - It’s nights like last night when it’s logical to ask, “Where is Jacoby Ellsbury’s career going?’’

The Red Sox center fielder could be on his way to a star-spangled career where he steals a ton of bases, perennially hits .300, and becomes one of the best leadoff men and defenders the game has seen for a long time.

He could be heading toward a fine career similar to Johnny Damon’s, where he shows more power as he gets older. We know he isn’t a Gary Pettis-type because Ellsbury can drive the ball to the gaps. But just when you think you know where it’s going, the Sox had to drop him from leadoff to predominantly seventh because he wasn’t getting on base enough.

Since the drop, Boston is 12-5 and Ellsbury’s on-base percentage is .449 during that stretch. Last night he went 4 for 4 with a walk to boost his average to .311. He also stole his 30th base and reached on singles in the second and sixth innings. He added a pair of triples and drove in three runs.

He has these extraordinary games sometimes, but lately Ellsbury has been all he was advertised to be - a very good hitter, who gets on base, makes things happen, and plays a terrific center field. If No. 7 in the order agrees with him, then leave him there.

He drew 10 walks in 221 plate appearances in the leadoff spot and 10 walks in 69 plate appearances away from the top spot. Does he press too much from leadoff? Is he too young to handle the responsibilities? If the answers are yes, then batting seventh isn’t such a bad thing.

The key is for the Sox not to try to change him.

Let him be whatever it is he’s going to be. Take Daisuke Matsuzaka for example. The Japanese righthander drove fans crazy last season because he walked too many batters. But so what? He won 18 games. He heard so much stuff about not attacking hitters that he started doing it and got killed. Now he’s on the disabled list with “shoulder weakness.’’

Sure, we’d all like to see Ellsbury become an on-base machine from the leadoff spot. Maybe he’s not that. Maybe he’s more of a middle-to-end-of-the-order hitter who will create havoc with his speed. His defense has been superb no matter where he’s hitting. If he’s that, then that’s OK.

Sometimes a team will try to mold a player into what they think he should be. You see his engines, his ability to make contact and drive the ball, and you have a preconceived notion that he should be a leadoff hitter.

“Everybody keeps saying, is he changing? What we did was, he was in the midst of a 20-something-game hitting streak. He lost the hitting streak, and we moved him to seventh. You know what, we don’t tell guys to change,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “He is swinging at strikes, and the byproduct is he’s driving the ball, and he’s getting on base more. If he was hitting first, if his approach was the same, he’s going to get on wherever he hits.’’

Ellsbury’s season has included a 22-game hitting streak, second largest in the majors this year, a steal of home against the Yankees, 12 putouts May 20 vs. Toronto when he tied a major league record for putouts in a nine-inning game. On many teams he would be the leadoff man and he’d stay there come hell or high water, but on a championship level team, Ellsbury has to prove he can handle the job now, not grow into it.

In Ellsbury’s perfect world, he would be the first hitter, but as he said last night, “I think I’ve hit first, second, sixth, seventh and for me I can’t change my approach to hitting . . . I go up with a plan and try to put good at-bats together.’’

Did he struggle with the pressure of leading off?

“No, I don’t think so,’’ he said. “You still have to hit the ball. No matter when you’re coming up you’ve got to do your job whatever that is.’’

Which is why he has to do it his way. He is not a guy who draws a lot of base on balls.

“I think if you go up there looking for walks you’re not going to be in this league very long,’’ said Ellsbury. “Sure, you want to get deep into a count and look at a lot of pitches, but if you see a pitch you feel you can hit, you’ve got to swing at it.’’

And what about power?

“I think that’s something that’s going to come later in my career,’’ said Ellsbury. “I’m not worried about that now. I hit them in batting practice, but in games I just try to hit the ball hard somewhere into the gaps. If it goes out, it goes out. I go up there and try to get my pitch to hit and drive the ball. That’s all I can do.’’

With the way he’s going, Francona might be tempted to get him back at the top of the order. That’s always been the plan. Some guys look like a leadoff hitter, but aren’t.Coco Crisp was one. Julio Lugo is another. It takes all kinds of hitters to make the Red Sox lineup so lethal. A .300 hitter with tremendous speed in the bottom third of the order? What’s wrong with that?

Nothing.

Jacoby Ellsbury isn’t quite the finished product yet, but we’re having some fun watching him get there.

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