The Red Sox reacquaint themselves with their eternal enemies, the New York Yankees, Tuesday night in the Bronx with American League East eminence in play during the three-game set. When the Sox last left Yankee Stadium, they had finally clawed their way to .500 by virtue of a three-game sweep of the Pinstripes. Now, they're seven games above sea level at 33-26 and just a game back of the Yankees for first place.
If you want to know where the Red Sox fortunes took a U-turn after their road-to-nowhere beginning you have to rewind beyond the Bronx. Take it from the top. That's where you'll find Jacoby Ellsbury, the once injured-rib-ridden and ridiculed frontman for the Sox batting order. Instead of absorbing a big impact like last season, Ellsbury is making one.
With an American League-leading 22 stolen bases, a .299 average and an .813 on-base-plus slugging (OPS), Ellsbury is making a serious push for All-Star consideration, and at the same time has helped push the Sox from declension to contention.
Exiled to the bottom of the lineup when the Sox lost their first six games of the season, Ellsbury was reinserted into the leadoff position on April 22 against the Angels (you know where they're from). Entering that game, the Sox were 7-11, last place in the American League East, and Ellsbury was batting .186. Neither the player nor the team were enjoying anticipated redemptive seasons. Both were stuck at the bottom.
Since No. 2 started batting first, the Sox have gone 26-15 and scored a major-league leading 214 runs. During that same time span, they also lead the majors in OPS, (.804) and slugging (.460). Their on-base percentage of .344 is second only to the St. Louis Cardinals.
After regaining his leading role, Ellsbury has batted .337 and posted a .391 on-base percentage in 41 games. His 19 stolen bases and 17 doubles since April 22 are tops in baseball.
If the basepaths came with a loyalty rewards program, Ellsbury would have platinum status for his frequent visits. Only Jose Bautista, and reigning National League MVP Joey Votto have been on base more times than Ellsbury, who has reached base 75 times since April 22. That's three more than Adrian Gonzalez over the same time period. Ellsbury has scored 30 runs since returning to the top spot, fourth-best in baseball since April 22.
Not all of the offensive outpouring is attributable to Ellsbury. Since April 22, Gonzalez has batted .360 with 11 home runs and 41 runs batted in. David Ortiz, who was just named the American League Player of the Week, has hit .344 with 11 homers and 21 RBI.
But Ortiz and Gonzalez have to be driving in somebody.
Still, you might think too much credit is being given to Ellsbury for the Sox' success. But the statistics, which are now the pablum of seamheads both sabermetrically-inclined and diametrically opposed to new-age numbers, spell out Ellsbury's importance in pretty plain terms. When he scores they usually win. When he doesn't they usually don't.
In the Red Sox' 33 wins, Ellsbury has scored 31 runs. In the 26 losses, he has crossed the plate just eight times. In Sox' wins, Ellsbury's on-base percentage is .401. In defeats, it's just .302.
This is a better version of Ellsbury we're seeing this season. Coming into this season his career OBP in the lead-off spot was just .330, prompting the usual bromides about how no matter how swift a player is they can't steal first base. This season, Ellsbury's .374 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot trails only Kosuke Fukudome of the Chicago Cubs (.411) and Jose Reyes of the New York Mets (.386) among players who have spent at least 30 games in the top spot.
If anything Ellsbury's evolution is a reminder of why Sox fans were so upset that he was not in the lineup last season. While railing about Ellsbury's slow return from five fractured ribs, it was easy to forget that in his last full season of play, 2009, he led the majors with 70 stolen bases. He was the first American Leaguer since Kenny Lofton in 1996 to bat .300 and swipe 70 bags.
Ellsbury inspired a lot of discussion and derision in these parts for not returning with enough alacrity, and then when he did return (twice by the way) he wasn't able to stay on the field very long.
He was labeled fragile, his character was questioned, and he became fodder for sports talk radio ranting that included uncouth allusions to the feline species. This was all exacerbated by a rift that existed between him and the Sox medical staff over the diagnosis of the rib injury (initially after Ellsbury was cross-checked in Kansas City in April by Adrian Beltre the Sox said he had simply suffered bruised ribs).
Rubbing salt in the wound was that Ellsbury was hurt playing left field, the position the Sox shifted him to so they could make room for Mike Cameron in center. Beltre broke the ribs of another Sox left fielder, Jeremy Hermida, in similar fashion two months later.
The rift became a gaping chasm when Ellsbury retreated to Arizona to convalesce under the auspices of Athletes Performance Institute, not the Red Sox, after his first comeback failed. In July, Ellsbury returned to the team in Toronto after about a month in Arizona and tried to defend himself, but offered a clumsy, rambling 11-minute (front and) backstory on the injury that only led to more mockery.
By the time he got to spring training this February, Ellsbury had learned his lesson. There was no explanation that was going to change the tidal wave of public opinion. He decided to let his play do the talking, and it's answering questions for him.
Now, Ellsbury is back on top of his game, and so are the Sox.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.