The play Jacoby Ellsbury made last night in the eighth inning required a daring and athleticism few players in the game possess. With the bases loaded and out one, with the Sox leading 7-4, Jason Bartlett lined a ball to centerfield. Ellsbury thought he read the line drive well. “I knew I could make it off the bat,” he said.
He decided immediately he could catch the ball, and he was going to try even though he knew the consequences of being wrong.
“That’s one of those plays where you have to catch it,” Ellsbury said. “If it gets by me, it’s probably an inside-the-park home run. At best, a triple. It’s one of those plays where you have to make it.”
Had the ball trickled by him, the Sox may have lost the lead in a game they seemingly had locked up. Ellsbury charged forward and dove feet-first when he reached the ball.
As he slid, Ellsbury tried to put himself in position to hop to his feet and throw toward the infield, in case Pat Burrell was tagging at third base. (He was not.) Ellsbury snagged the ball in the heel of his glove and, in one motion, popped up and fired the ball back toward the infield.
“If I miss it, I probably run off the field,” Ellsbury said. “I had confidence that I was going to come up with the ball.”
The play a full and obvious display of Ellsbury’s skill and his bravado. More subtle, though, was his burgeoning maturity as an outfielder. Ellsbury used his athleticism and guts to make the play, but it never would have happened without proper positioning.
Before the at-bat began, Ellsbury moved two steps in from where he normally plays. Bartlett has some pop in his bat, but Ellsbury relies more on simply the batter to determine where he starts. With Jonathan Papelbon pitching, he knew Bartlett was unlikely to hit the ball over his head.
“That kind of comes from knowing the situation, who’s hitting, knowing that it’s not likely he’s going to beat you deep with Pap pitching,” outfield coach DeMarlo Hale said. “You play the situation like that. If it’s a different hitter, he has some power, you move back by a couple steps.
“He knows. But there’s a reminder, either from me or Tito. Usually, we try to play the situation based on who’s pitching.”
When Bartlett fouled off a 2-1 pitch and got two strikes, Ellsbury knew Bartlett’s swing was likely to get more defensive. He moved in another two steps.
Earlier in the game, Ellsbury had made a highlight-reel grab, laying out to rob Burrell of what seemed to be a ball destined for the gap. He sprinted in and then to his right, toward leftfield. He closed on the ball with staggering speed and stretched out to cover an impossible amount ground in an instant; “Go-Go Gadget Arm,” Ellsbury said.
He proved he had the requisite physical ability to make any play. But in the eighth inning, with the game in the balance, the extra two steps he had moved in before the pitch made all the difference in the play, which may have made all the difference in the game.
“Absolutely,” Hale said. “Absolutely.”