Ellsbury catches the eye
Defensive gem picks up Smoltz
BALTIMORE - John Smoltz stood in the center of the diamond and watched Jacoby Ellsbury charge back, the up-down movements of Smoltz’s eyes and neck becoming smaller with the ball’s descent. The game had just about slipped away already, and the Baltimore Orioles, it seemed, had added to Smoltz’s most recent downfall.
Still at full sprint when he reached the warning track in front of the center-field fence, Ellsbury leaped and made perhaps the most awesome catch in a career of awesome catches to help bail out Smoltz and, along with a surging offense, lift the Red Sox to a 6-5 victory last night before 44,091 at Camden Yards.
Without Ellsbury, both in the field and at the plate, the Sox likely would not have claimed the series-opening victory over the Orioles. Ellsbury also smacked three hits, including a solo home run that gave the Red Sox the lead in the fifth inning, and scored a pair of runs. Ellsbury has at least two hits in seven of his last eight games, a span in which he is batting .457.
Last night, though, his catch in the sixth inning made the biggest impact, contributing to a second straight victory while the team dealt with the fallout of David Ortiz’s 2003 drug test results and the blockbuster trade for Victor Martinez.
“It was kind of an emotional day, all the way around, after an emotional day yesterday,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “I guess the feeling in the dugout, as a staff, we appreciate it. They just keep grinding. And it’s not always perfect, but they just keep grinding.’’
The Sox ripped 11 hits last night, meaning that after a vicious post-All-Star slump, they have produced at least nine hits and six runs in five consecutive games. Ortiz, the hero of Thursday’s victory in the wake of his performance-enhancing drug test revelation, blasted another home run, too, a two-run shot in the third that marked his 15th of the season.
The latest outburst saved Smoltz, who surrendered eight hits, five runs, two home runs, and two leads. He entered the game with a 7.04 ERA, and it actually went up, to 7.12.
Smoltz said he would need four or five starts before he began to show his true form. But, after seven starts, Smoltz has not pitched one game in which he lasted at least six innings and allowed three or fewer runs, the minimum standard of a quality start.
“I feel like it’s a blessing I haven’t gone crazy yet,’’ Smoltz said. “I’m not happy at all with my performance, but results can be confusing. Words can’t describe how frustrated and angry I am. But I will continue to go to work and try to get this to where those zeroes will show up just about every time I go out there.’’
The numbers would have been grimmer if not for Ellsbury’s catch with two outs in the sixth.
Smoltz had been laboring, his pitch count climbing into the 80s. As in most of his starts, Smoltz’s had been intermittently effective. The Orioles did not score in the first two innings, then exploded for three in the third, tying the score. After Ellsbury gave him another lead, Smoltz squandered it even before Luke Scott slammed a pitch to center field.
Ellsbury sprinted toward the fence, tracking the ball, hoping it was not too far over the wall. He knew it would be close, and he felt he had a good bead on the ball. But the ball tailed back, which “made it a little bit difficult,’’ he said.
Still running when he reached the fence, Ellsbury leaped, his legs pointing out like he was sitting in an invisible chair. Ellsbury placed his bare, left hand on the top of the fence and twisted his right hand across his body and over the fence as the ball fell.
Ellsbury landed on his backside and rolled over on to his chest. He pushed himself to his knees and calmly flashed the ball inside his glove toward the infield. Raucous applause was appropriate, but the crowd could manage only mumbled disbelief.
Ellsbury ran off the field with his mouth half-open, like someone who knew what he’d done but wanted not to smile.
“Those are fun,’’ Ellsbury said. “Those are the fun plays for an outfielder, to have an opportunity to rob a ball, especially in a tight ballgame.’’
The catch got Smoltz out of the inning and eventually gave him his second win with the Sox, after Kevin Youkilis put the Sox back on top with a two-out, two-run homer in the seventh.
It could soothe Smoltz’s frustration. He still believes he is not far from recapturing his form, but after seven starts, “I’m getting tired of close,’’ Smoltz said.
Smoltz accepted the struggles because the Sox won, and they won primarily because of Ellsbury. He raised his season average to .302 and tormented the Orioles with power and speed. He has been getting on base constantly, and “when he does that, we look like a different team,’’ Francona said.
And then there was the play that mattered most.
“I told him it was the best catch I’ve seen in a very long time,’’ Smoltz said. “We can look back and say, ‘That was the game-winner.’ ’’