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Playing it forward

Ellsbury puts 2010 season behind him

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By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / July 11, 2011

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Jacoby Ellsbury was about to leave his spring training meeting with general manager Theo Epstein and the Red Sox coaching staff. They had talked about Ellsbury’s role on the team, about the upcoming season. They had talked about who he had been, and who he could be. He had one more thought. As Epstein recalled, “The last thing he said in that meeting was, ‘I want to play 162.’ ’’

“Ever since I played organized sports, it was never an option of missing a game,’’ Ellsbury said. “It’s a game. You don’t miss a game. That doesn’t happen. It’s not in the vocabulary. Or a day off, that’s not in the vocabulary. I think it’s just important to play every day. This is a man’s game. It’s part of being a baseball player.’’

But it did happen last year, when Ellsbury missed all but 18 games in a season that was marred by injury, controversy, and criticism. He was forced to spend most of his days trying to rest and recover from the ribs he broke in a collision with Adrian Beltre in Kansas City the first week of the season. He watched from afar, from the dugout and then, in a move that was questioned by many, from Athletes’ Performance in Arizona.

That time seems far away now, halfway through a season that has repositioned him among the best center fielders in the game. And while he won’t make 162 this year - though he has played in 89 of the club’s 90 games - Ellsbury will play in one that demonstrates just how far he’s come from last season, having been voted onto the American League All-Star team by fellow players.

“He’s been kind of a man on a mission this year,’’ Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said. “He’s played a little bit with a chip on his shoulder trying to prove a lot of people wrong, a lot of people that doubted him last year, his toughness. It’s one thing to play 155 games when you’re not a base stealer and you’re not really one of the main cogs in the offense, but when you’re out there trying to steal 60-70 bases and you’re the leadoff guy, there’s a lot of eyes on you.’’

And, as Ellsbury found last season, a lot of judgment.

“When you go through adversity and you come out stronger, it has a really positive effect,’’ Epstein said. “Sometimes it takes the form of a long slump you fight your way through. Sometimes it’s personal problems that you play through. In this case it was an injury that came with a lot of unnecessary baggage attached. He was able to make the best of it, he was able to use it as motivation and it made him not only stronger but wiser, determined to play just about every game.’’

Many opinions There were whispers that the Sox should cut ties with Ellsbury, reports of criticism from his teammates, public disagreements with the medical staff. There were a thousand opinions, a thousand takes, a thousand doubters.

“I’ve always had thick skin,’’ Ellsbury said. “I know it’s part of the game when fans get on you. It’s never bothered me. Not here, like when you go on the road to New York and they get on you, it’s usually not personal. I look at it like that’s being a fan.

“Obviously you want everybody to like you. At the same time, I’m a pretty realistic person. It’s not always going to happen that way - no matter how well you do there’s always going to be people that are trying to bring you down. But you can use that to your advantage or disadvantage.’’

There are regrets on Ellsbury’s side, on his teammates’ side, on the organization’s side. As Epstein said, when asked about criticism from within the clubhouse, “That was a big part of the unfortunate messiness that surrounded the injury. I think it could have been handled better on all fronts. I think we as an organization could have done a better job supporting him unconditionally across the board. I think there were some circles it wasn’t communicated as well as it could have been.

“It’s 25 individuals. Situations can be looked at 25 different ways. There were some who handled that period better than others. But I never sensed that anyone had turned on him, that he had lost the clubhouse.’’

And while all this was going on around Ellsbury, the outfielder simply sat back and watched the game. It might have been the best thing he could have done.

“It was frustrating for him,’’ Magadan said. “And for a guy like him to sit back and watch, it’s not easy. He wants to be in there playing every day. But it was a good thing, in a way, because it gave him a chance to sit back and watch and kind of see the game from a different perspective.’’

Experience gained That has changed him, changed his game and his swing, added experience. He remains a young player, at 27, one with room to grow. And for a young player, a lost year can be damaging. But Ellsbury was determined that it wouldn’t be that way for him, knowing from the start of the offseason that he had to be committed, that he had to work every day, that even taking the time to go home to Oregon for the holidays wasn’t going to work.

So he flew his family to Arizona, so he wouldn’t have to take a day off from training. As he said, “I knew there was no time to waste.’’

“Words were pointless,’’ Ellsbury said about proving his worth this season. “When I came to spring training, I had nothing to say. Just watch me play this year. That’s the route I took and that’s the route I usually always take. You don’t need to talk about your game, just watch and it’ll speak for itself. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I was going to do.

“There was no question in my mind that I’d be doing what I’m doing.’’

He has been everything the team has needed, and more, finally translating a swing that was doubted into a swing with power. Gone are the days of critics recommending that he hit everything on the ground and use his speed. His 11 home runs, 26 doubles, and .316 average have taken care of that. He is back in center field, back in the leadoff spot, back fulfilling the hopes and expectations of the organization.

“We saw, from time to time, a real hitter, with a very legitimate swing and strength,’’ Epstein said. “We knew it might take some time for him to learn his swing, for him to grow into his body a little bit, but he always showed tremendous loft in his swing and backspin ability in batting practice. He had a hard time taking that into the game.

“His first couple years, when he wasn’t going well, he’d be kind of caught on his back foot, he wouldn’t have his best swings against fastballs. He was a better hitter against offspeed stuff. So it was a process. It takes thousands of at-bats to really understand yourself, and last year was tough because he was just starting to really turn the corner. This year he’s been great at taking that BP swing, that loft and backspin and strength, more consistently into the game. And he hits fastballs. That changes everything.’’

It changes the way pitchers face him. It changes what he can do with those offerings. And it has changed the way the Sox offense functions.

“He really can do so many things on the field that can change the momentum of a game,’’ teammate Jed Lowrie said. “Obviously he’s a key to this team, just getting on base, making plays in the outfield that other guys aren’t capable of. I think at the end of the day he’s a driving force of this team. You never want to put the onus of the team on one player. But he’s capable of changing games - by himself.’’

No matter what happened last year - and the story varies depending on the source - Ellsbury has the clubhouse now. He has the respect of his teammates, the praise and adulation that he deserves for what he’s accomplished, for the way he has solidified the lineup. And he is confident in both his play on the field and his ability to withstand difficulties off it.

“It’s how you handle it,’’ Ellsbury said. “In my situation, it could have really brought me down or it could make me better. And that’s what I chose. I chose to rise above, to become a better player because of it.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.

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