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Ellsbury leads off — and defends

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / August 5, 2010

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The cheers started as Jacoby Ellsbury climbed the dugout steps, and they grew slightly as he walked toward the on-deck circle. It was a brief spatter of applause at first, a tepid reaction to the return of the Red Sox leadoff hitter.

That changed as Ellsbury approached the batter’s box, as he stood outside it. It became an ovation — though half-hearted, and with a few boos — as he stepped in. Some fans stood. Some didn’t. No one was in danger of losing their voice.

In a season in which Ellsbury has had little impact on his team, he didn’t have much immediate impact on the full house at Fenway Park last night, nor much impact (0 for 5) in a 9-1 loss to the Indians.

“It felt good. It felt good stepping in the box, just doing something that is familiar to me,’’ Ellsbury said. “It’s nice to get back here and play in a big league game, obviously playing in front of these fans.

“It’s always nice to be appreciated for what you do. Fans have always treated me very well, just from Day 1 since I’ve been here. This place will always be home to me, and tonight was a perfect example, coming off injury and having the nice ovation like that.’’

There’s no denying that having Ellsbury at the top of the lineup makes the Sox a better team. He has the ability to wreak havoc in a way few players in baseball can, let alone those on the decimated Sox roster. He changes how pitchers work batters, providing a distraction that can lead to better chances.

But as Ellsbury professed his excitement at being back on a major league diamond — playing his first game at Fenway since April 7 — he also continued to face questions about his choices and his relationship with the organization and his teammates.

“It’s been pretty tough, or real tough actually, not playing, not being able to do what you love to do,’’ Ellsbury said before the game. “You just want to go out there and play, contribute to your team. You want to help them win, you want to be a part of a pennant race.

“I know my track record. I play hurt, I play injured. So I’m just happy to be here, playing.’’

Otherwise, it was in almost every way a normal day at the ballpark for Ellsbury. He took the field at 4:20 p.m., heading out to center field to shag fly balls. He stood alone — not in one of the small groups of players that often congregate during batting practice.

Still, as natural as his appearance seemed, questions remain. The teammates who griped about his departure for Arizona for a stay at Athletes’ Performance — as other injured Sox sat on the bench game after game — might not be easily returned to his corner. Not only were they unhappy about that, but they were not pleased with the lack of communication. To many of them, Ellsbury simply disappeared. Had he abandoned the team? Was he milking his injury?

“I know how my body feels,’’ Ellsbury said. “I’ve played hurt in the past. I’ve played other sports, I’ve played football, cut off my own cast to play in the game, broke my collarbone playing basketball.

“Injuries, part of the game. Some people understand it. Some people won’t.

“I think there’s been a little misunderstanding. My teammates have been great. They’ve been texting with me the whole time: ‘Hey, do what you need to do, get back and get healthy, we’re behind you 100 percent.’

“So anything that’s been said in the past hasn’t been correct. Maybe just miscommunicated a little bit, but everything from my teammates, they’ve been awesome, same with management, [Terry Francona], everybody.’’

What is clear is that the Sox need Ellsbury — especially with Kevin Youkilis out, with Dustin Pedroia out, with the bumps and bruises that have been sustained. So it was heartening that he was at the top of the order again.

“It gives us a dimension that we really haven’t had,’’ Francona said. “We’re going to have to keep an eye on him. Certainly we’re going to try to manage his workload before the game is probably the biggest thing. I think if we do that, then we have a better chance of seeing what he can do on the field. Not get so picky about a certain amount of swings. Hopefully we’ll see that athleticism during the game.’’

The Sox have had practice this season in monitoring injuries. And knowing that Ellsbury is likely to feel discomfort — from the five fractured ribs sustained in the April 11 collision with Adrian Beltre — until next season, there will be a significant amount of management.

“I’ve never said I wanted to be close to 100 percent,’’ Ellsbury said. “I just wanted to go out when I was capable of playing and help the team win. That’s what I was saying from the get-go, and every time I move my arm, I have a reminder there, every single time.

“But it’s good enough. We feel comfortable that it’s not going to get worse, and that’s where I’m at and I’m just excited to be out there playing.’’

The understanding at this point is that Ellsbury is not in danger of reinjuring the ribs, as he did the last time he returned to the team. Ellsbury, who has played in only 10 games this season, came back May 22, played three games, and went on the disabled list again.

It was determined not long thereafter that Ellsbury would head to Arizona, something that was done with the team’s knowledge and consent, he continues to emphasize.

From Arizona, there was Fort Myers, Fla., and then Pawtucket, R.I. Now, finally, there is Boston.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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