07/01/07 12:28 AM ET
Ellsbury shows his speed in debut
Outfield prospect's first big-league hit an infield single
By Alex McPhillips / MLB.com
Not long after noon ET on Saturday, Jacoby Ellsbury learned the good news. The 23-year-old former Oregon State star packed his belongings and hit Interstate-95, calling family, friends and his college coach, Pat Casey, as he cruised north from Pawtucket, R.I.
The timing of the move was surprising, its consequences still not immediately clear. The one man who wasn't taken aback, it seemed, was Ellsbury himself, who learned long ago not to worry about the mechanics of an organization that has generously and speedily rewarded him.
"I didn't want to put a timeline on myself," said Ellsbury in the Red Sox clubhouse before Saturday night's game against the Rangers. "I knew that if I went out and played hard, continued to improve -- that's the biggest thing, continued to improve -- that things were going to happen."
The Red Sox made room for Ellsbury by placing reliever Joel Pineiro on the disabled list with a sprained ankle, retroactive to Thursday. Then they cleared space in the starting lineup by sitting Coco Crisp, who is still nursing a bruised thumb, for another day.
Crisp hinted that Ellsbury will patrol center field in his absence not just on Saturday, but through the weekend. It certainly fits Boston's management philosophy to play the prospect when it has committed to bringing him up.
Ellsbury is one of the game's brightest lights, the first American Indian of Navajo descent to reach the Majors, and the newest member of the heralded Draft class of 2005 to break in, after Boston's Craig Hansen, Washington's Ryan Zimmerman, Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki and Kansas City's Alex Gordon. Ultimately, Ellsbury is an "unfinished product," according to manager Terry Francona, a prospect in his developmental stage.
In his first at-bat of Saturday's game, with a lone runner on third, Ellsbury topped the second offering from Texas starter Robinson Tejeda into the dirt.
"I'm just trying to get [the runner] in from third base," Ellsbury said. "That's my job. And unfortunately it landed right in front of the plate."
Rangers catcher Gerald Laird picked up the ball and applied the tag. Ellsbury, still standing in the batter's box, threw up his head in frustration. Turning, he meekly returned to the dugout.
Even with the expected learning curve, the Red Sox believe that Ellsbury's value as an elite defender and raw athlete with on-base ability can help immediately. In Ellsbury's second at-bat on Saturday night, the Fenway faithful witnessed his most fundamental talent in furious motion.
"Well, we certainly saw the speed that everybody has raved about," Francona said.
After wristing a bouncing ground ball to Texas shortstop Michael Young, Ellsbury looked more like a blur as he raced down the line.
"Once I saw [Young] sit back on it, I knew I had a good shot of beating it out," Ellsbury said.
He beat the routine throw from short, electrifying the crowd. The ruling: Ellsbury's first Major League hit, an infield single.
"That's a routine ground ball," Francona said. "That'll keep you out of a slump."
At Triple-A Pawtucket, Ellsbury batted .277 with a .352 on-base percentage and showcased his speed on a near-nightly basis, swiping 21 bases and playing some of the International League's best center field defense. In a season-opening stint at Double-A Portland, the 2006 Red Sox Minor League Player of the Year was leading the Minors with a .452 average and getting on base at a .518 clip when he was called up.
"We don't want to bring him up and let him sit a whole lot," Francona said.
Ellsbury gamely fielded questions from the Boston media contingent before batting practice on Saturday, then listened as a clubhouse attendant gave him directions to the field.
A greenhorn with an attitude that speaks to a more polished persona, Ellsbury possesses great "survival instincts," Francona said, attributing the phrase to Red Sox assistant to the general manager Allard Baird.
"I'm a pretty even-keeled person," Ellsbury said. "I don't get too high, get too low."
As for pregame nerves: "I had the butterflies coming up here. But once I got into a familiar setting in the locker room, they went away."
Francona said, remembering his Montreal Expos debut in 1981, that Ellsbury's comfort level would likely shift by game's start.
"At 7:05 [p.m.], his heart will be jumping out of his chest," Francona said. "No reason to get around it. Other than having children, it's probably the single most exciting moment of your life."
"You only have one first time being a Major League player," the Sox skipper added. "Whether it's Opening Day or the middle of the season, he's going to have a heartbeat."
Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.