JUPITER, Fla. -- Jacoby Ellsbury says he doesn't care where he hits in the Red Sox lineup. On Tuesday, he built a strong case to bat leadoff.
Ellsbury went 3-for-4 with an RBI double, two infield hits, a steal and a run scored as the split-squad Sox beat the Cardinals, 8-7, in front of a sellout crowd of 7,983 at Roger Dean Stadium.
He showed everyone that he's back to normal after missing all but 18 games last year with broken ribs.
"After this offseason, I'm ahead of where I normally would be," Ellsbury said, adding that he feels as good as he did in his first two full seasons, when he led the AL in steals (50 in 2008; 70 in 2009).
"I put in a lot of work in the offseason, and I take a lot of pride in that," he said. "This offseason I had to work extremely hard -- I always do -- but I had to come back and I wanted to be ready to go Day 1 of spring training."
On Tuesday, Ellsbury was ready from the first pitch. He led off the first inning with an infield hit off Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia, then stared down the tough lefty as first baseman Albert Pujols held him on.
"I knew I could go. He picked over twice. I wasn't going to steal, but since he picked over twice, I had to take off," Ellsbury said.
"I really like the read that he got off the lefty," said Red Sox bench coach DeMarlo Hale, running the team in place of Terry Francona, who stayed in Fort Myers with the squad playing against Houston. "[Garcia] went over there a couple times to pick him off, and he had a good read. That means he's looking for something, and he's aggressive."
He jumped and beat the throw from Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina -- considered one of baseball's best in nailing runners -- and slid in headfirst ahead of shortstop Ryan Theriot's tag. It was his first steal since Aug. 12, 2010 at Toronto.
"The ball hit me in the shoulder, and [Theriot's] glove hit me in the face," Ellsbury said. "It felt good."
Ellsbury added an RBI double off Garcia in the second inning, scored on Darnell McDonald's single, and legged out another infield single in the fourth. He was replaced in center by Matt Sheely in the sixth.
He looked like a classic catalyst, but Ellsbury denied any specific wish to lead off for the Sox once the games count.
"Whatever the best combination is that day, I'm happy with that lineup," he said. "I think that's how everybody feels. Most of the guys are willing to do what it takes to win."
Among those in the crowd: New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a friend of Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa. Belichick visited LaRussa's office and the Cardinals' clubhouse after the game.
Starter Stolmy Pimentel struggled with his control, throwing 23 of his 47 pitches for strikes. Pimentel, who last Thursday started in place of Josh Beckett and lost to Philadelphia, gave up two earned runs on five hits in 1 1/3 innings.
The Cardinals knocked around righty Jason Rice in the fifth inning, scoring five runs on a bases-loaded walk, a run-scoring error on second baseman Oscar Tejeda and RBI singles by Lance Berkman, Gerald Laird and Ryan Theriot.
But in the eighth, Alex Hassan's two-run double and Ryan Lavarnway's two-run homer off Brandon Dickson put the Sox ahead for good.
Lars Anderson didn't have his best day against Garcia, who won 13 games last year and was third in the NL Rookie of the Year race. Anderson went 0-for-3 and left four men on, including a weak tap to the mound with the bases loaded.
"Those are the type of pitchers he's going to have to have some good at-bats with," Hale said of the lefthanded Anderson. "It's a learning process for him. He has to have some good at-bats out there."