As the Red Sox’ September skid kept going and going, careening perilously close to the historic, you kept waiting for that one moment, that one perfect swing at the perfect time, to make it all right again.
Forget the the scapegoats and disasters, the half-formed excuses and legitimate reasons for their lackadaisical play. Forget the failings of John Lackey, whose season-long ineptitude apparently proved contagious to the rest of the rotation this month.
One well-timed swing at a pivotal moment — an Adrian Gonzalez opposite field blast to break open a tie game, a Dustin Pedroia gapper to clear the bases, a Big Papi flashback to 2003 and ’04 and a couple of seasons beyond, hell, a fortunate flare from Carl Crawford — and maybe then the best team in the American League through much of the summer would have started looking familiar to us once again.
We waited, and waited, and waited to the point that some among us wondered why we bothered waiting at all. And then, with zero hour approaching and the last evidence of a one-time 11-game wild card lead on the verge of evaporating entirely, the swing happened at last. Let the record show that Jacoby Ellsbury‘s three-run home run in the 14th inning last night — his third homer of the doubleheader and 31st in his marvelous, redemptive season — was just the reminder we needed of what a clutch hit looks like. The Red Sox have not had a more important hit this season, or in recent seasons, really, dating back to the 2008 postseason.
Felix Doubront earned the official save last night at Yankee Stadium, and you could say that Jonathan Papelbon, with 2.1 innings of critical, clutch relief, earned the thinking fan’s save. But it was Ellsbury who may very well have earned a save of the entire season. And his performance when his team needed it the most, with the almost unfathomable possibility hanging over the outcome that the wild card race would tied with three games remaining, could go a long way toward bringing him baseball’s most prestigious individual accolade: a Most Valuable Player award.
It is an especially compelling race for the AL MVP award this season, because there are several worthy candidates, but no clear-cut favorite. Jose Bautista is the game’s most proficient slugger, but his Blue Jays are also-rans, and his accomplishments will be downgraded for the failings of his teammates. Detroit’s Justin Verlander has essentially duplicated Roger Clemens‘s 1986 season when he won the MVP, but the debate over any pitcher’s worthiness for the award rages on. The Yankees’ Curtis Granderson leads the AL in runs (135), RBIs (119), and has walloped 41 homers in the Bronx, but his own candidacy may be hurt by the depth and talent of the lineup around him.
As for Ellsbury, he surged ahead of Gonzalez and Pedroia as the Red Sox’ leading candidate long before last night — over the last 28 days, he’s hit .368 with seven homers and a 1.088 OPS.
Last night, however, he became the American League’s front-runner.
Now, I wouldn’t blame you, discerning readers, if you staged an intervention to keep me from using baseball-reference’s Play Index to attempt to put every Red Sox player’s season, up to and including Nate Spears, into historical context. Heck, this is twice I’ve done it with Ellsbury. I have a problem . . . but hey, it’s a helluva fun problem to have. Besides, if you can’t celebrate his season, especially after what happened last night, then what’s the point of celebrating anything?
So here I am, fixing on the Play Index again, punching in a specific set of Ellsbury’s numbers in with the hope of finding out just how great he has been this season.
I searched for players who equaled or surpassed Ellsbury’s current output of home runs (31), RBIs (103), runs (117), and hits (208) in a single season. Pretty basic, I know, and those four categories don’t even take into consideration the entire scope of Ellsbury’s season — the 38 stolen bases, 45 doubles, .928 OPS, and league-leading 356 total bases.
But they do tell you what you desire to know, even after you notice during rudimentary poking around that he has more extra-base hits this season (81) than Jim Rice did in ’78 (76): namely, that Jacoby Ellsbury’s age-27 season has put him in some extraordinary company.
There have been 23 players — including Ellsbury this year, obviously — who have pulled off the 31 HR/103 RBIs/117 runs/208 hits statistical four-pack, with it being accomplished a total of 33 times. Lou Gehrig did it five times, Chuck Klein three, and four players did it twice, including Alex Rodriguez and Todd Helton, who is one of three Coors Field legends on the list, along with Ellis Burks and Larry Walker.
Rice’s ’78 vintage is there, as is Don Mattingly‘s remarkable ’86 season, and Vernon Wells‘s brilliant 2003 that feels like a long time ago given the current state of his career. Nineteen of the 33 occurred in either the 1920s or ’30s, while eight others happened in the jacked-up sluggers’ heyday from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. This is one thing I didn’t check, but I’m pretty sure Ellsbury is the only player among the 33 who never had an at-bat against Tim Wakefield.
The list becomes even more exclusive when other criteria are considered. Only 16 players of the 33 matched or surpassed Ellsbury’s 45 doubles, and only one stole more than 38 bases. I had forgotten that A-Rod, who swiped 46 bags at age 22 for the 1998 Seattle Mariners, used to be a threat on the bases without needing to slap the ball out of an opponent’s hand.
I admit, the context here isn’t perfect — for instance, Ellsbury is on the bottom of the power scale, finishing 30th in OPS and tied for 32d with Mattingly in homers. But there’s no denying that he has the numbers to win the AL MVP. He’s far and away first in the majors in fWAR (9.2), and after last night, he has something even more visceral and valuable to his in his case: a go-ahead three-run homer in the 14th inning of a must-win game at Yankee Stadium. It’s the swing we’ve been waiting for all September, and as it replays in your mind this afternoon, is sure looks like the most persuasive of defining moments.