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Nothing lost in outfield shuffle

The outfield trio of Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew, and Coco Crisp has been getting the job done offensively and defensively, and nobody is complaining. The outfield trio of Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew, and Coco Crisp has been getting the job done offensively and defensively, and nobody is complaining. (File/Michael Dwyer/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marcus Thompson
Globe Correspondent / May 24, 2008

OAKLAND, Calif. - The consensus when it comes to the Red Sox' outfield shuffle is that it's working.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Coco Crisp, and J.D. Drew, who are trading off duties in center and right field, are all hitting well, holding their own defensively, and contributing to what many consider the best team in baseball.

All is well. The only question is for how long.

"They've done a good job," Sox manager Terry Francona said before last night's opener of a three-game series with the Athletics. "They're at different points of their career, but they've handled what we've asked them to handle, so that's really good. Guys have to handle it. There are things we need to talk about. But it makes us a pretty good team."

None of them made much of a difference in last night's 8-3 loss to the Athletics, which snapped the Sox' seven-game winning streak.

Despite their current success, the difficulty of sharing is not lost upon the three. This is omnipresent in the center-field competition between Ellsbury and Crisp (with Ellsbury occasionally spelling Drew in right).

They smile, they speak the team-first mantra, even praise each other. Still, it is obvious their immense desire to be on the field every day is being suppressed. The thanks for that goes to the winning results and their patience.

"I think we work well together," Ellsbury said. "We both want to win, so I guess whatever it takes, we're willing to do.

"Coco, he's a great teammate. We get along on and off the field. Both of us want to play every day. I think maybe that's the toughest thing to balance, how to get both of us the [at-bats]. But when Coco's got his chance, when I've got my chance, I think we've done a good job. We just go out there and play."

There is something to be said for depth. The Sox have viable options in case of injury and quality bats for pitch hitting. But a case could be made for any two of the three to be permanent starters alongside Manny Ramírez.

Crisp has provided some pop. His 12 extra-base hits and .457 slugging percentage entering last night were second only to Ramírez among Boston's outfielders. Crisp's .295 average was the best of the three, and he's considered the best defensive player.

Ellsbury has given the Sox some electricity at the top of the lineup. Entering last night, he was fifth in the American League and tops among Boston regulars in on-base percentage (.396), which is amplified by the frenzy he causes on the basepaths. Ellsbury's 19 stolen bases were third in the majors and have brought a welcomed dimension to the offense. Plus, he's the future.

Drew has provided consistent hitting. He was leading the trio in RBIs with 22. His injury history, as much as anything, has forced him to share duties.

"Everybody's doing well still," Crisp said. "I think if you get consistent at-bats and you play every day, you have an opportunity to play better. But I think [Francona] is doing a good job of getting everybody playing time the best that he can. With all four of us playing as well as we are, it's kind of tough to get everybody in there, keep everybody happy. For me, specifically, I want to play every day. But it is what it is, I'm just waiting it out, see what happens."

Of course, the way they've been playing makes it more difficult.

Entering last night, Ellsbury was batting .303 in May with a home run, 6 RBIs, 19 runs, and 11 stolen bases. Crisp was batting .298 this month with 2 homers and 6 RBIs. Drew was batting .321 with a homer, 4 doubles, 9 RBIs, and 12 runs.

Imagine having to choose two. Welcome to Francona's world.

"You know, I actually was struggling with it today," Francona said before the game. "I usually tell the guys the night before. I just didn't know what I was going to do. I talked to [bench coach Brad Mills] about it. I even told Millsie, 'Make out your lineup and give it to me. I want to see if it matches mine.' We both had different lineups. Yeah, it was a hard one today. This guy [A's starter Rich Harden] throws hard and Coco's such a good fastball hitter. Ellsbury's been a force at the top of the lineup. So, that was a hard one."

In the end, Ellsbury was the choice. He was 2 for 4 with two RBIs. Drew, who started in right, finished 1 for 4 with a run and two strikeouts. Crisp got the night off.

Francona will be back to drawing straws tonight.

It was easier when Drew was suffering through a strained left wrist, or when Ellsbury's knee was giving him problems, or when Crisp was battling illness. But with three players healthy and playing well, dividing the workload becomes a bit tougher, and staying patient and positive is also more difficult.

Somehow, though, they are pulling it off. They have to, because so far it's working.

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