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A most valuable player

Ellsbury proves his worth to Sox

Jacoby Ellsbury’s third home run of the day gave the Red Sox a boost heading into Baltimore. Jacoby Ellsbury’s third home run of the day gave the Red Sox a boost heading into Baltimore. (Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
By Nick Cafardo
September 26, 2011

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In his relatively short career, Jacoby Ellsbury, one of the best athletes in the majors, has done some pretty impressive things. He wows you with grace and speed. He’s wowed everyone this season with his power and ability to perform in the clutch.

During this horrible month of September, he’s been the one Red Sox who has risen above the malaise. But nothing can compare to what he did last night. MVP voters take note: this was Ellsbury’s most important MVP moment.

With his team’s back against the wall, at the low point of their season, Ellsbury resuscitated his team. The All-Star center fielder belted a three-run homer in the 14th inning to give the Sox a 7-4 win and a split of yesterday’s doubleheader. Ellsbury, who became the first 30-30 man in Sox history when he homered in Game 1, has 31 homers and 103 RBIs to go along with a .322 average and a .928 OPS. If he was on the fringes of the American League MVP voting before this moment, he’s smack dab in the middle of it now.

“With first and second, two outs, [Scott Proctor] threw me a first-pitch breaking ball and I was sitting on a fastball,’’ said Ellsbury. “Fortunately he threw something over the plate and I was able to drive it out. In that situation I’m looking for something I can drive.

“It’s a huge win because it allows us to control our destiny. If we go out and win we don’t have to scoreboard watch.’’

The next thing his teammates and others are waiting from Ellsbury are leadership qualities. Ellsbury has been able to stay healthy and suit up for 155 games this season after playing only 18 because of broken ribs in 2010. He’s heading into his last arbitration year and it will be interesting if he cashes in on this incredible season now (long-term deal with the Sox) or later (free agency).

That’s a story for a few weeks from now. Right now Ellsbury is on fire, hitting .348 in his last 37 games with 11 homers and 29 RBIs. It is precisely these moments that separate the MVP pool and because the Sox have had such a rotten month, it appeared Ellsbury’s chances had faded.

But with one stroke of the bat, he got the Sox in a more comfortable position. As he would pointed out, the Sox don’t have to scoreboard watch if they go to Baltimore and take care of the last-place Orioles. If the Sox win three, they’re in. There’s also the possibility of a one-game playoff should they end the season tied with the Rays.

Ellsbury acknowledged he didn’t have time to think about the 30-30 status because “I was trying to prepare for [Ivan] Nova. We haven’t seen too much of him, so I wasn’t really able to spend too much time thinking about it. I’ll reflect some more on the plane.’’

Ellsbury had a tough time against Nova. He couldn’t come up with a key two-out hit in the third or fourth inning that could have broken things open. And in the seventh, he had another chance but took a called third strike. In the 10th, he blooped a base hit to left field and in the 12th had knocked into a double play.

So here he was in the 14th. A one-out single by pinch hitter Darnell McDonald followed by a walk to Marco Scutaro. Two outs, two on. Proctor put one where Ellsbury likes it and the game turned that quickly.

Red Sox players were happy for Ellsbury, who took a lot of heat for rehabbing and training on his own in Arizona last season. He’s come from that low to this high. He’s dropped the fragile label and consistently put his body at risk with diving catches and aggressive base running.

He uses more clichés than Crash Davis when he does interviews, but who cares? He does his talking on the field, where everyone in this organization hoped it would happen.

He’s had such a great year that opposing fear him. They gameplan to stop Ellsbury. They try to pitch around him and pray he doesn’t get on base. Now he’s added the power. The ability to hit the ball out of the park at any given moment.

His homers have not been cheapies. At Fenway, he hits them to right field. This isn’t a guy short on power and strength. If his teammates followed Ellsbury’s strength and conditioning regimen, they would be better off. He’s become the player the team most relies on for big hits and big plays.

In last night’s nightcap, there were certainly plenty of big moments.

Jonathan Papelbon’s 2 1/3 shutout innings. John Lackey’s six strong innings, Franklin Morales’s two scoreless innings.

But none were bigger than Ellsbury’s moment.

“He’s had so many big hits for us this year,’’ said Dustin Pedroia, who made an exceptional defensive play to rob Curtis Granderson of a hit in the 13th. “That just continued tonight. We’re all very happy and proud of him. He’s come along way.’’

“We just put ourselves in a good position,’’ Ellsbury said. “Our bullpen. Our whole pitching staff was lights out. It enabled us to compete for 14 innings I think it’s huge momentum. It would have been tough to lose this game and then it would be tough to get in and we’d be scoreboard watching as well.’’

The fact he’s talking for the team is a sign he’s moving into a leadership role.

“Yeah, we know what’s at stake,’’ he said.

The biggest thing Ellsbury has earned?

Respect.

His actions, his ability to recognize a moment and seize it.

He has arrived.

He performed his biggest MVP feat yet.

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

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