Then came the tight calf and tight lips, the specter of yet another DL stint for the oft-injured outfielder and the tabloid-titillating possibility that the Yankees' $153 million center fielder would not be with them on Opening Day.
That raised Ellsbury's profile considerably, to the point that three Yankee beat writers -- this one included -- and one columnist hung back from the road trip to Dunedin to watch him play five innings of center field in a minor league game against some Pittsburgh Pirates farmhands.
Here's what happened:
Ellsbury hit (1-for-4, a single, plus a walk and three hard-hit balls).
Ellsbury fielded (catching two easy fly balls, chasing another that sailed over his head to the wall and retrieving a couple of singles up the middle).
Ellsbury ran (breaking out of the box hard on every at-bat and seeming to be going full tilt at the shot that went over his head in the fifth inning).
And Ellsbury talked, although not all that willingly or revealingly, as befitting a player who has always been exceedingly wary around the media.
Net result? We still don't know for sure if he will be on the field when the Yankees open the regular season in Houston on Tuesday, but today's workout certainly seemed to be another step in that direction.
"Obviously I want to be ready for Opening Day," Ellsbury said. "I feel good right now. We still have four games left. I got 11 at-bats the last two days, and I’m sure that’s more than any of those guys got. I’ll relay that to Joe, and we’ll make up a plan tonight after their game, so I’ll go in and take care of what I need to."
Optimistic, if somewhat inconclusive.
GM Brian Cashman, a witness to Ellsbury's work day, was more definitive.
"Oh, I think he will be ready," Cashman said. "As long as he’s feeling good and he’s healthy, yeah. I’ve always felt that way. Maybe it took a little longer, but down here you can give it the time necessary to make sure it’s not an issue."
Still, Cashman spoke of keeping Ellsbury in minor league games the rest of the way (the Yankees break camp after Saturday's game against the Marlins) to preserve the club's right to backdate a DL stint, if necessary, to reduce the number of games he might miss at the start of the season.
"It’s something we talked about, so we’ll still talk about it," Cashman said. "We have him over here only for that reason, but if he looks as good as he does today and tomorrow, he'll be in Houston."
The only thing that seems certain is that Ellsbury will play at least one more minor league game, on Thursday, while the Yankees travel to Bradenton for their final road game of spring training.
"Our intent was to play him over here the rest of the way before we go to Houston, but he’s bouncing around so well, maybe we should change that," Cashman said. "I don’t know. We’ll talk about it. We’ll make it up as we go along, like we usually do."
Ellsbury lined out hard his first time up, singled to right his second and then hit what would have been a double-play grounder in a big league game but became a routine 4-3 when the second baseman bobbled the ball. He grounded to short his fourth time up and walked in his fifth.
Each time he hit the ball, he broke sharply from the box but eased up on his way to first base. And when he was on the bases, he took healthy leads but never attempted to steal, which he said he generally does not do in spring training anyway.
Ellsbury sidestepped the question of whether the Yankees were being more cautious with him than he would prefer and repeated what he has been saying since the team first reported the injury March 15: that if this was the regular season, he would certainly be playing.
And he certainly appeared capable of it.
Asked how he felt out there, Ellsbury said, "How’d it look? I felt good. I pretty much did everything I possibly can to stay on top of the game as far as timing, seeing pitches, doing everything I can besides playing in the game. Three of my four plate appearances I hit balls hard, so that felt good."
But he also acknowledged that the injury was on his mind after he lined one into the gap in his first at-bat.
"You accelerate out of the box, it’s in your head, but afterwards, it felt good," he said. "This is the first game of doing everything, so I think the next game I play in I won’t have any thoughts in my head. Just go and do everything."