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Ellsbury now a leading man

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 29, 2011

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BALTIMORE — As Jacoby Ellsbury continues his current hot streak, it seems appropriate to ask the questions: What is he and what will he become?

Ellsbury, who is 6 for 10 the past two games, collected three hits and two runs in last night’s 6-2 win over the Orioles. Ellsbury’s obvious talents are intriguing. They were intriguing last season as well, though his year was cut short after he broke five ribs in a collision with Adrian Beltre and was limited to 18 games.

Who was at fault, why he chose to recuperate away from the team in Arizona, and why he didn’t return sooner from the injury are debatable. But after a wasted year, Ellsbury is back on the track and has added power to his game.

With the power component — he has four homers — what is his potential?

Is he Carl Crawford? Is he Johnny Damon? Is comparing him with Jim Edmonds unrealistic? At 27, it’s still unknown. All that’s known is that whatever he settles into, he’s going to be a player who has the ability to change a game and spark an offense.

This season, manager Terry Francona has been stressing the importance of on-base percentage to Ellsbury. He wants to hit Ellsbury leadoff, as he did last night, but he can only do it if the speedy center fielder gets on base enough to warrant it. For part of this season, Ellsbury was hitting at the bottom of the order, but he didn’t take that as a slight or demotion. He didn’t change his approach at the plate and just tried to have quality at-bats.

“I try to stick to my game and use my tools that I have no matter where I’m at,’’ Ellsbury said. “The biggest thing is one hit here or there makes a big difference. That’s how you have to look at it. It’s a small sample. As long as you stay with your approach and what you know, you’ll do what you’re supposed to do.’’

Ellsbury started the season as the leadoff man. In Boston’s 0-6 start, he hit .164 (4 for 24) with one double, one homer, three RBIs, three walks, and seven strikeouts. He was sent to the bottom of the order. After Carl Crawford, J.D. Drew, and Jed Lowrie all took turns up top, Ellsbury built a seven-game hitting streak. During that span he’s 13 for 32 (.406). He’s raised his average to .264, his on-base percentage is now .326. He’s hit four homers, one behind Kevin Youkilis for the team lead, with 14 RBIs, tied with Youkilis for second behind Adrian Gonzalez (15).

Ellsbury is not one to stray from careful answers. He doesn’t reveal much. Everyone likes to hit home runs. It’s a great feeling to hit one out of the park and put a big number on the board for your team. Given Ellsbury’s speed, Francona would like to see him concentrate on getting on base for the big bashers. But is Ellsbury a big basher now?

“I mean if you have the ability, you might as well use it,’’ said Ellsbury. “Whatever your tools are. It would be a shame to have power and not use it. Have speed and not use it. You try to put it all together.’’

Mike Cameron understands Ellsbury’s mind-set. Cameron was a speed guy with power. He never had Ellsbury speed, but he is a three-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder who used his legs to track down balls and make sensational catches.

“He’s a heck of a hitter,’’ said Cameron. “He really hangs in there against lefties and that’s very important because with that he’ll be able to hit .310-.315 and get on base and hit 15-20 home runs and knock in runs. He has that one dimension you can’t teach — he can run like hell. Game-changing type of stuff. Great tools. And, as he starts to mature as a player, you’ll start to see him do some different things that are going to open your eyes.

“He needs to play more,’’ Cameron said. “He’s very aggressive but I think that works in his favor. As he gets older and more mature with his game, he’ll know the time when to go for the home run and when the time is to get on base. You learn those things over time. The one thing I’d love to see him do more is bunt. With that speed, he could get himself a few base hits a year and also keep the defense honest. If you’re threatening to get on that way, you’ve got to play a little differently out there. For a guy who has the ability to bunt his way on and to hit one out of the park, that’s some ability right there. You don’t see that in too many players.’’

Cameron has talked with Ellsbury about taking charge in the outfield. He called Ellsbury a “bad diver.’’ Bad in that he will get himself hurt in the outfield.

“Learn how to dive right,’’ Cameron said. “Part of your game has to be the ability to stay on the field. You have to learn to dive the right away to avoid injuries.’’

Ellsbury, who is 5 for 8 in stolen base attempts, said he doesn’t even think about last season. He’s moved on. The team was generous in giving him a $2.4 million salary for this season, a massive raise from the $397,000 he earned in 2010. The Sox had moved Ellsbury to left field when they obtained Cameron as a free agent, but he’s back in center this season.

Ellsbury said the most important thing to him is consistency. Baseball players need to be able to produce all the time, not just on occasion. What he’s trying to do is limit or eliminate prolonged slumps. Francona believes when Ellsbury is getting on base, there’s nobody he’d rather have up in the No. 1 spot. But Francona has also not given the job to him. He’s making him earn it.

“Any time you get a leadoff guy on, it just puts a lot of pressure on the defense and gives the guys behind you one or two more fastballs to see,’’ Ellsbury said.

Ellsbury has the speed, power, on-base percentage, and OPS to be an elite leadoff hitter. As this season continues, a clearer of picture of what Jacoby Ellsbury is will unfold.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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