ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The at-bat was slow and deliberate, and it was just what Jacoby Ellsbury had in mind.
The Boston Red Sox’s center fielder stepped to the plate Monday night at Tropicana Field with his team down by a run. The Sox looked lifeless and hopeless against Tampa Bay Rays starter Alex Cobb, who hadn’t allowed a hit through the first 5 1/3 innings.
So Ellsbury did his best to disrupt Cobb’s rhythm, stepping out of the box occasionally and biding his time. The plan seemed to work as Cobb fell behind 3-and-1.
Cobb then came at Ellsbury with an inside fastball, and looking like the guy who nearly singlehandedly helped Boston avoid a catastrophic collapse last fall, Ellsbury laced it over the wall in right.
The blast put an end to Cobb’s flirtation with history and triggered the Red Sox’ 5-2 win over the reeling Rays while reminding everyone, including Ellsbury himself, how good he can be when he stays healthy.
It has taken some time. But if anyone knows a bit about patience, it’s Ellsbury.
Think back to that 2010 collision with Adrian Beltre and the stubborn rib injury that came with it. Ellsbury appeared in just 18 games that season, watching helplessly while the Red Sox failed to make the playoffs.
Or think back to this April, when Ellsbury, looking to build on the momentum from a breakthrough 2011, when he finished second in the balloting for the league’s most valuable player award, suffered a shoulder injury seven games into the season that kept him on the shelf until the All-Star break.
On Monday, Ellsbury went 3-for-5 and drove in three runs. And while it won’t be enough to turn around Boston’s dreadful season, the sight of a healthy, productive Ellsbury will help give the organization and its fans something to savor before moving into an uncertain winter.
“I feel good. I know the more at-bats I get, the better I’m going to be,” said Ellsbury, who is hitting .368 over his past nine games. “I knew it was a matter of time -- stay with the approach, continue to work hard and just do what I normally do.”
The home run, Ellsbury’s fourth of the year and first on the road, erased a 1-0 deficit and jolted the Sox to life.
“For five innings, it looked like we didn’t have any gas in our tank,” manager Bobby Valentine said. "Ells had a good at-bat."
The momentum carried into the following inning, when the Red Sox scored twice before the Rays intentionally walked Pedro Ciriaco to load the bases for Ellsbury.
Ellsbury wound up lifting a bloop single off lefty reliever J.P. Howell, arming Boston with a 5-1 lead its bullpen had little trouble preserving.
“I know J.P.’s been throwing tremendous, he’s been throwing great,” Ellsbury said. “He does a good job getting lefties out, so maybe they were hoping for a double-play ball. And Ciri’s been swinging the bat well all year. But I was kind of excited to have an opportunity to get up.
“I like that, being in a situation where I can help my team win and have the opportunity to drive in a run. You’re not always going to have success in that situation, but it only adds to my focus.”
Working his way back to normal has been a process, Ellsbury said, and one he expected to take some time.
Yes, he had a full spring training. But he also missed 79 games, along with the chance to work himself into a groove.
“When you miss that much time, it’s basically an offseason,” he said. “You basically come back in and everyone’s in midseason form, the pitchers are in midseason form, and you’ve got to play catch-up. But you’ve just got to stick with the plan, stick with the approach and know that it’s going to happen.”
The 2011 season will forever serve as a dark time in Boston’s rich baseball history, a year that ended with an historic collapse that the franchise is still working to recover from.
Even so, Ellsbury was a revelation, putting together a year complete with power (32 home runs), production (105 RBIs) and his trademark speed (39 steals).
His chances to build on that vanished in early April, however, leaving Ellsbury and the Red Sox to do nothing more than hope for better days ahead and remind fans there still may be something to look forward to.
It’s just going to take some patience.
“I can’t get those at-bats back,” Ellsbury said. “So here on out the rest of the year, just go on out there and try to be as consistent as I can and continue to play hard. I know good things are going to happen.”