BOSTON -- When Jacoby Ellsbury grounded a single to right in the sixth inning Sunday, there seemed to be a mock cheer from Red Sox fans who have watched the speedy center fielder endure a slow month at the plate.
There was no such sarcasm after Ellsbury’s at-bat three innings later, which culminated in a walk-off two-run double that finished Boston’s second straight come-from-behind victory, a 6-5 triumph over the Cleveland Indians.
The hit, which came after Indians closer Chris Perez was lifted three pitches into the at-bat with a shoulder injury and Joe Smith came on to throw one meaty fastball, accomplished one thing and might serve as the impetus for another.
First, it reinforced the never-say-die attitude of this edition of the Red Sox, who scored four runs in the eighth to win Saturday and rallied from a 5-2 deficit against Perez and Smith in the series finale. This was the first time Boston had scored at least four runs in a walk-off rally since the Mother’s Day Miracle more than six years ago.
Ellsbury's hit, a laser to the gap in left center that plated Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew, might also serve as a catalyst for the leadoff man. If he can utilize the positive vibes from one clutch swing, perhaps fans will be less sarcastic when he simply grounds one through the hole.
“You've just got to stay confident, stay with the approach, and good things will happen,” Ellsbury said when asked if the game-winning hit could turn things around for him.
Ellsbury entered Sunday hitting .200 in May and had just two extra-base hits in his past 27 games.
“Hopefully, it gives him a boost of confidence,” manager John Farrell said. “He gets the base hit in the previous at-bat, and we’ve seen his on-base frequency start to pick up over the last week, either by walk or some base hits. So he gets obviously the key hit of the day with the game winner, so I would certainly hope that this would have a carryover effect for him.”
Critics will continue to point to Ellsbury’s one home run, but one good swing can lead to many more, and the fact that Ellsbury had to see three pitches from one guy and one from another in the same at-bat created an increased level of difficulty.
Ellsbury had seen Smith before. In fact, he homered off him to give the Sox a walk-off win over Cleveland in 2011. But he was ahead of Perez 2-1 and locked into that duel before Indians manager Terry Francona and the team's trainer came out to check on Perez, who threw a warm-up toss to the backstop and was immediately removed. Per protocol, the side-arming Smith was given all the time he needed to warm up while Ellsbury had to ruminate for several minutes in the on-deck circle.
Then again, perhaps the change helped Ellsbury.
“I’ve never really been in that situation, but I know coming in his mindset is to throw a strike and try to make it 2-2,” Ellsbury, who has produced three of his four walk-off hits against Cleveland, said. “I figured I’d be aggressive, if I got my pitch.
“They’re very different pitchers. You have a few less pitches to make the adjustment, work the count. So, yeah, it’s a different scenario, makes it harder. But I figured he would throw a strike, and I’d try to hit something hard.”
Ellsbury showed plenty of emotion rounding first as the tying and winning runs came across. There also seemed to be a tinge of relief in his body language. Maybe he felt as if he was one big hit away from breaking out, and Sunday’s game winner was about as big as they come.
Even if the double doesn’t immediately vault Ellsbury to his 2011 levels, it gives him, and his teammates, the knowledge that he’s a big part of something much bigger, the formation of a unit that has the attitude to pull off such feats. Boston already has 12 come-from-behind wins and four walk-off victories, one more than it had all of last season, when the club seemed to peter out in the late innings.
The incredible highs are key in galvanizing the group. So, too, are the lows, or at least how they handle them.
“Tell you the truth, I think it’s more on the other end: tough losses that kind of just create a valley and then you kind of stay in it,” Gomes, who drew a two-out walk and eventually scored the tying run, said. “It’s hard to play well in the big leagues. It’s hard to play well throughout the course of a season, but the telling thing at the end is if you come out of the valley. I think it’s just how teams deal with adversity that separates the good from the bad.”
The skipper has seen his team crawl out of the valley often.
“I think we’ve seen it many times over,” Farrell said. “Whether it was the game down in Tampa against [Rays closer Fernando Rodney] where we came back on the double by [Will Middlebrooks] in that game. Today, once again. This team loves to compete. *#133; Until that 27th out is recorded, this team doesn’t roll over, by any means.”
The attitude already has extended to replacement third baseman Jose Iglesias, who drew a big two-out walk to load the bases for Ellsbury. It qualified as the biggest plate appearance of Iglesias’ young major league career, and he did well to keep the line moving.
And by keeping the line moving, he gave Ellsbury a chance to squelch the sarcasm.