ANAHEIM, Calif. -- For a man with winged feet, the secret apparently rests in his hands.
"It was nothing with my swing," Jacoby Ellsbury said last night at Angel Stadium, where he went 3 for 5 in the Red Sox' 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. "It was more about my timing and being ready to hit, keeping my hands back and waiting for the inside pitch. I really didn't change anything with my swing."
With all due respect, we beg to differ.
The results have changed drastically.
Of course, timing is everything in life, so maybe it is all as simple as this: October is here. Ellsbury now has made seven consecutive postseason starts since manager Terry Francona inserted him into the lineup for Game 6 of the 2007 American League Championship Series, and we all know what has happened: the Sox have gone 7-0. (Overall, Boston has won eight straight postseason games.) During that time, Ellsbury has gone 12 for 32 (a .375 average) with eight runs scored, five RBI, five extra-base hits, and three stolen bases, adding some mercury to what was a heavy-handed, cement-shoed Red Sox offense.
The hands? Ellsbury has those in the right place now, making those terribly vague "adjustments" that all players must make. In this case, the simple truth was that opponents detected a flaw in Ellsbury's swing, explaining why the dynamic Boston leadoff man all but had his face plastered on a milk carton during the middle of the season. From June 16 through Aug. 29 – a span covering roughly 10 weeks and 58 games – Ellsbury batted .232 and struck out 42 times (against just eight walks). Teams kept pounding him inside, Ellsbury kept making outs, and pitchers weren't about to change as long as Ellsbury didn't give them a reason to.
During that span, he worked extensively with Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan, who freely acknowledged that Ellsbury was having difficulty handling the hard stuff in. Magadan, too, spoke of Ellsbury's "timing," which was to say that Ellsbury was not getting to pitches he needed to reach. Magadan stressed that Ellsbury had the bat speed to handle such pitches, and that the young outfielder merely needed to be "ready" to hit.
One digression here: Hitting is a terribly complex skill, and much of it is innate; you can either do it or you cannot. The fastball in is the hardest pitch for any player to hit because it requires the head of the bat to travel a longer distance in a shorter period of time, and the simple truth is that Ellsbury was late getting to the ball because of what Magadan and Ellsbury described as timing (or readiness), which is to say that he didn't have his hands in then proper position to launch.
So what has happened since that precipitous dip in Ellsbury's performance? He has started handling the inside fastball and pounding the inside pitch. In Game 1, Ellsbury led off the game with a double off the top of the right field wall. (Fastball in.) Later in the game, he added a bunt single. (Don't forget those legs, young man.) Though right fielder Gary Matthews misplayed an Ellsbury at-bat into a three-base error in the seventh, the ball was a smoking liner. (Fastball in.) In the ninth, Ellsbury then drove in a key insurance run by yanking another single to right (guesses on the pitch?) and then scored the final Boston run.
Along the way, Ellsbury made a brilliant, diving catch of a Mark Teixeira blooper to help stifle a Los Angeles rally in the pivotal bottom of the eighth.
Quite simply, he was everywhere.
"He takes the game over with his speed," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia duly noted of Ellsbury.
But in this game, his bat was equally as big a factor.
Of course, we all know what Ellsbury means to the Red Sox offense, especially now, in this era free of both steroids and Manuel Aristides Ramirez. (We are not suggesting those two things are related.) Throughout baseball, and in Boston, power is down. The Red Sox must find different ways to score and win because they have different players at a different time, and Ellsbury has the tools to cope. In his last 25 games, Ellsbury is batting .380 with a .583 slugging percentage and 24 runs scored. He is 11 for 14 on steal attempts. The Red Sox leadoff man is hitting, running and playing defense, and there is not a more dynamic player on the Boston roster when he is doing all three.
A year ago at this time, Ellsbury made his postseason debut along with fellow October novices Pedroia, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, and Jon Lester, and America watched with awe as the Red Sox won a second world title in the span of four seasons. Unlike the 2004 Sox, the 2007 team was splattered with youth, a fully functioning demonstration of Theo Epstein's master plan. Now the Sox are back in the playoffs again and the young guys are rolling right along -- Ellsbury is technically a rookie, remember -- and they only continue to win as they learn and develop.
"I think the biggest thing is knowing what to expect before you get here -- the expectation of winning," Ellsbury said when asked about the team's rich player development system. "The individual stats are great, but at the end of the day it's about winning -- and the veteran guys here are really good about helping the younger guys."
In turn, the younger guys listen.
In the Boston clubhouse, after all, they believe in taking matters into their own hands.
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