Ellsbury, who missed 37 games with broken ribs, returned to action Saturday night in Philadelphia and played center field while hitting in the leadoff spot.
When the weekend was over, Ellsbury went 1-for-9 and scored just one run. But the Red Sox had a two-game winning streak and looked like contenders again with their sparkplug back at the top of the order.
Ellsbury brings a lot to the diamond for the Red Sox.
First, he allows manager Terry Francona to move Marco Scutaro to the bottom of the lineup. Scutaro batted leadoff in Ellsbury’s absence, but against the Phillies, he batted eighth (with the pitcher batting ninth) and went 2-for-6 with a double. Scutaro moved to the nine-hole in the series opener against the Rays, and the shuffling should provide a boost to Boston’s already potent attack. Having Scutaro bat in the bottom third of the order lengthens and strengthens the lineup.
It also adds speed to the equation for Boston. Ellsbury is a weapon on the basepaths. He stole 50 bases in 2008, 70 last year, and can force pitchers to pay attention to the runner on base instead of going right at hitters.
That element is something Francona’s club missed in Ellsbury’s absence. Entering play Monday night, the Red Sox rank dead last in the majors with just 12 steals on the year and Ellsbury had two of those before he was injured April 11. Scutaro was unsuccessful in his only two steal attempts as the leadoff hitter. And Darnell McDonald — who played center since Ellsbury and Opening Day starter Mike Cameron went down — has just two steals in 2010.
McDonald has been a surge of energy for the Red Sox at times in 2010, but he isn’t an everyday outfielder. Ellsbury’s return gives Francona the ability to move guys like McDonald and Jeremy Hermida — who get exposed at the plate as starters — to the bench as pinch hitters.
McDonald was forced to play center field because of his defensive abilities, but he is a .244 career hitter. Hermida is a great left-handed bat off the bench, but he’s hitting just .220 this year in an expanded role.
Now, Hermida and McDonald can spell each other in left field until Cameron comes back. Francona can decide whether he wants a big bat or a solid glove in the lineup on any given day, because he knows that Ellsbury is the anchor in center.
In the bottom of the seventh on Sunday, with Tim Wakefield blanking the Phils, Raul Ibanez slapped a knuckleball into shallow center. It looked like the Phillies were about to start the inning with a baserunner.
That is, until Ellsbury – who was playing deep in center for the slugging Ibanez – came out of nowhere, and in his patented style, slid and made a tremendous shoestring catch.
Juan Castro was the next Phillies hitter in the inning, and he smacked a double off the left-field wall. Had it not been for Ellsbury’s speed in center, the Phils could have been on their way to battling with a burnt-out Red Sox bullpen. Instead, they couldn’t start a rally, and the Red Sox rolled to Tampa Bay feeling good about themselves.
Maybe McDonald would have caught the ball Ibanez hit, too.
But nothing sounds better to the Fenway faithful than "Leading off … playing center field … Jacoby Ellsbury!"