Healthy ex-OSU star on short list for AL MVP award
SEATTLE - Jacoby Ellsbury might do well to make a little extra room in the trophy case of his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
After an injury-riddled 2010, Boston's fleet center fielder and Tampa Bay's Casey Kotchman would seem front-runners for the American League comeback player of the year award.
With six weeks left in the regular season, the Madras native and former Oregon State standout is also in an exclusive group of bona fide candidates for the AL most valuable player honors.
Toronto's Jose Bautista, Texas' Michael Young, New York's Curtis Granderson and Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox are on the short list of potential MVPs.
'Jacoby has had a heck of a two-thirds of a year,' Boston manager Terry Francona said as he sat in the visitors' dugout before Friday night's Red Sox-Mariners game at Safeco Field. 'The fact that his name is being mentioned, he deserves it.
'So do the other guys they're talking about. Gonzalez, for sure. Pedroia, probably not as much as the other guys,' Francona said, winking as he looked at Pedroia, sitting a few feet away.
'Nah, I mean, it's good,' Francona said. 'If (Ellsbury, Gonzalez and Pedroia) end up taking votes away from other, it probably hurts their chances, but all three of them have played great. All three deserve it.'
Gonzalez leads the majors with a .350 batting average and is second in RBIs (92) and doubles (36). Pedroia is hitting .311 with 15 home runs, 60 RBIs and 23 stolen bases.
Ellsbury's numbers, though, are staggering. Entering Friday's game, the 6-1, 185-pound left-hander ranked among the top 10 in the AL in a swarm of categories, including average (.314, sixth), runs (84, second), hits (150, tied for third), doubles (31, tied for seventh), stolen bases (31, tied for fourth), multi-hit games (44, fourth), three-plus hit games (third, 15), total bases (third, 242), average with runners in scoring position (third, .344), extra-base hits (10th, 52) and on base-plus-slugging percentage, (ninth, .876).
'I came into spring training ready to show I was 100 percent,' Ellsbury said. 'I was ready to go from day one and carried it on into the regular season.'
Perhaps most remarkably, Ellsbury - who made his first All-Star Game appearance last month - already has secured career highs in home runs (19) and RBIs (72) while batting in the leadoff position.
'He has really been the catalyst for us,' Francona said. 'He has done so many things. He has gotten on base, he has hit home runs, he has driven in runs, he has stolen bases, he has played defense - that's why people are talking about him the way they are.'
People were talking about Ellsbury in quite a different vein a year ago as he struggled through a campaign in which he hit .192 while playing in only 18 games.
Ellsbury, who turns 28 on Sept. 11, had never suffered a serious injury until a collision in the outfield the first month of the 2010 season. After the Red Sox medical staff administered an X-ray, the diagnosis was bruised ribs. He tried to come back, couldn't handle the pain and asked for an MRI, which revealed four cracked ribs.
After a stint on the disabled list, Ellsbury returned in late May, and after a diving catch felt a searing pain that left it hard for him to breathe. A subsequent MRI revealed a fifth broken rib. His season was done.
'It was me being a competitor, trying to play through it,' Ellsbury said. 'As a result, it made it worse. That's how bad I want it. That same drive I have is the reason I'm playing as well as I am right now. It hurt me then, but it's helped me out now.'
Ellsbury became a controversial figure, doing rehab in Arizona for a five-week stretch through the heart of the season. Fans, and even some teammates, questioned his heart and wondered why he didn't get treatments in Boston with the rest of the injured Red Sox players.
'To try to play through an injury and to hear what people are saying is tough enough,' said infielder Jed Lowrie, the North Salem High grad who is Ellsbury's closest friend with the Red Sox. 'When you find out you're hurt as badly as he was, it makes it even harder. I wouldn't have wanted to be in his shoes.'
Ellsbury later explained he spent the time in Arizona because there were five employees at the Athlete Performance Center there who could tend to his rehab needs. That was preferable, he reasoned, to asking Red Sox medical staffers to tend to him along with all the other injured players in Boston.
The injury struggles were a come-down for a player who had risen quickly to prominence in the big leagues after being chosen by Boston in the first round of the 2005 draft.
Following a call-up to the Red Sox in August 2007, Ellsbury hit .353 with a .394 on-base percentage in 33 regular-season games. He then went 7 for 16 with four doubles to help Boston sweep Colorado and claim the World Series title.
Ellsbury had an outstanding first full season in 2008, hitting .280 with 98 runs and a league-best 50 stolen bases, finishing third in AL rookie of the year voting. He followed that with a spectacular 2009 campaign, again leading the league with 74 stolen bases, hitting .301 with 94 runs, 188 hits, 27 doubles, 10 triples and eight homers. He was also honored as MLB.com's defensive player of the year.
Then came the disaster of 2010. Ellsbury, who admits now that he was 'hurt' by the controversy, stayed away from baseball-related activity until December, allowing his body to heal. Then he attacked rehab with a vengeance in Arizona.
'I didn't take any vacation, any time off,' he said. 'I worked out pretty much six days a week the whole offseason, getting prepared.
'I didn't even get back to Oregon for the holidays. Instead of me going up there, we flew the whole family down so I wouldn't miss one day of training. Everything I did in the offseason, it's nice to reap the rewards now.'
Ellsbury started the season hot and hasn't cooled once.
'People see my power numbers. I get a lot of questions about that,' he said. 'It's a result of being in a strong position when I step into the batter's box. It sounds simple, but that's it. I try to be consistent with every at-bat. That's been the difference.'
With his next home run, Ellsbury will become the first Red Sox 20/20 player since Nomar Garciaparra in 1997. Ellsbury's 19 homers are the most ever for a Boston player with 30 steals. He is also on pace for 100 RBIs, which would break the major-league record of 98 by a lead-off hitter set by Garciaparra in '97.
'Guys are doing a good job of getting on base in front of me,' Ellsbury said. 'I have to give them a lot of credit. It's been fun hitting in this lineup, because the lineup turns over. When you have that, when you have a lot of guys swinging the bat well, you get on base for one another and keep the train moving.'
Ellsbury's selection to the All-Star Game via player ballot made it even more meaningful to him. Strikeouts in his two at-bats didn't dim the experience.
'It was a dream come true, to be selected by my peers,' he said. 'They see you play in spring training. They see you play in the regular season. To be recognized by them was an honor.
'I can't enough about how much it meant to play with the game's best players. It was exciting.'
Exciting, too, was the five-day stretch he experienced last week. First there were a pair of walk-off hits - the second one a homer - against Cleveland. Then there was a six-RBI performance in a victory over New York, the most by a Boston leadoff hitter since Ellis Burks in 1987. It was also the first time since 1920 (the first year RBIs became an official stat) that a Red Sox leadoff man had gotten six at Fenway Park.
'I'd never had a walk-off hit before, except one time when a guy threw a ball I hit away that led to the winning run,' he said with a laugh. 'It was like a walk-off error. But never a walk-off hit to win a game.
'To do it two nights in a row, then two or three nights later, have six RBIs - what can I say? And it was in a a big game against New York in a pennant race. Those games mean a lot.'
The Red Sox own the AL's best record of 73-44 and hold a two-game edge over the Yankees in the East Division race. He is reluctant to compare the current team with the '07 edition because he wasn't with that team for the entire season.
'But this team wants another championship,' he said. 'The guys who were on the team in '07, we know what it takes to win. We want to feel that same feeling again. Guys are working hard. Guys are motivated.'
Ellsbury said he isn't getting caught up in all the MVP talk.
'I just try do what I can to help the team win,' he said. 'If you take that approach, everything will take care of itself.
'It's fun being on a winning team. With us, you don't need to tell anybody what to do. The guys are self-motivated. They know what they need to do, even if they come up from Triple A or Double A. If you're doing everything you can to help the team win, that stuff will play out in the end.'
Ellsbury looks back on his three years at Oregon State with fondness, especially the memory of leading the Beavers to their first College World Series appearance since 1952. That set the seeds for back-to-back national championships after he departed in 2006 and '07.
'We did well my freshman year, but not great,' he said. 'The next year, we built upon that. My third year, we could see internally what we had, but we were picked to finish last in the Pac-10. That was a lot of motivation for the guys.
'We knew we had talent. Our team goal going into the season was to win the Pac-10 championship. Some of the guys kind of looked around like, 'Are we crazy for setting this goal?' But once we started having success, everybody got on board.'
Ellsbury recalls an early-season meeting with Coach Pat Casey that keyed the season's success.
'We weren't practicing well, making mental mistakes one day,' Ellsbury said. 'Case shut everything down. He said, 'This is your goal. You guys are the ones who want to win the Pac-10 championship. I can't do it for you. All I can do is coach you and lead you to that.'
'I'll always remember that. In order for us to do it, we had to take it upon ourselves. After that practice, we never had a problem again. We won the Pac-10. Then the regionals. Then the super regionals. We went to Omaha, and the rest is history after that. It's pretty special.'
Ellsbury has a large delegation of friends and family members in Seattle for the three-day series at Safeco, including long-time girlfriend Kelsey Hawkins, the Pendleton native who once served as receptionist in the OSU football office.
'There are a lot of people supporting me who are here,' he said. 'It means a lot that they would make the trip up here. I couldn't get enough tickets for how many I needed, but that's always the case.
'It's always nice to be back in the Northwest, and it's nice to see a lot of people who are close to me.'
Ellsbury singled in his last at-bat to go 1 for 5 in Boston's 6-4 win Friday night. He also made a pair of fine, over-the-shoulder running catches at the wall in center field, displaying his speed and defensive prowess.
Maybe there will be another World Series crown for Ellsbury in October. Maybe, too, there will be an MVP award to consider.
'It would be great for him to win it,' said Lowrie, who played on high school travel teams with Ellsbury and came up in the minor leagues with his fellow Oregon native. 'He deserves to be in the conversation.'