Jacoby Ellsbury feeling no pain

BOSTON -- Jacoby Ellsbury has been startled and delighted lately to discover the baseball appears as though it is coming at him in slow motion. Fastball, curve ball, slider, it matters not. When you are in a groove like Ellsbury is, you have all the time to you need to make what, in the past, has occasionally felt like a harried, split-second decision.

"You can see the ball so well," Ellsbury explained. "It doesn't matter what they throw up there. It can be inside, outside. When you are locked in, everything slows down so you have that extra time to see it coming."

He is blossoming into a five-tool superstar, perched among the league leaders in hits (147), runs (84) and stolen bases (31). He's already hit a career-high 19 home runs, moving him well beyond the chatter for comeback player of the year and squarely into the conversation for MVP.

And we're not just talking among the Boston Red Sox.

"He's getting on base, driving in runs, stealing bases, hitting for power and he's playing defense," manager Terry Francona said. "This kid has turned into a top-five or -10 players in the league."

Ellsbury has returned as a more patient hitter, capable of spraying balls to all parts of the field. He has exhibited the power and elevation that general manager Theo Epstein maintains is what caused scout Fred Peterson to be so excited about Ellsbury in the first place.

"Jacoby has always had two separate swings," Epstein said. "There was the one he took in batting practice and showed up occasionally in games, the one when he was on time, had a balanced swing that created a lot of elevation. He used to put on some shows in batting practice, even as an amateur. I remember watching him in the Cape Cod League hitting balls into the bullpen.

"But in games that swing didn't always show up. He was such a good player he found a way to get on base, but he was hitting the ball on the ground, and we wanted him to go in the other direction with it, and that didn't always happen.

"We felt if he kept getting at-bats his natural swing would eventually show up in games."

It has arrived, that natural swing, in conjunction with a more confident player who understands he can afford to wait for his pitch, who recognizes with his exceptional speed that a botched at-bat for some can be deftly transformed into an infield hit for him.

"With his speed, he should hit .300 every year," teammate Kevin Youkilis said. "That's how good he is. If he hits .290, .300 and bangs out some home runs, that's incredible for us. If he hits .330, then that's an even greater year. And, if he hits .360, which he could do, there's no telling how high he can go."

The glowing accolades are not without irony. A year ago at this time, Ellsbury was on the sidelines, recuperating from five broken ribs that left him embroiled in a dispute with the Red Sox medical staff, questioned by select media members for being "too soft" and tweaked by some of his teammates, Youkilis among them, for not staying in Boston while he rehabbed his injuries.

The inference that he wouldn't or couldn't play through injuries was the most hurtful.

"In my whole career I had never been out for any extended period of time," Ellsbury said. "I had a concussion in college [at Oregon State]. By NCAA rules I had to sit out. I was trying to get back into the lineup, but they made me wait three games."

The concussion, incidentally, was suffered as Ellsbury flung his body at a fly ball in center field. He has the Harry Potter scar to prove it. "It was me going hard," he said.

He insists he has put the doubts and the innuendo and the awkwardness and the mistrust of last season behind him. Ellsbury has successfully refrained from leveling criticisms, exhibiting bitterness or gloating over his redemptive performance, tempting as those sentiments might be.

"Turn the page," he said. "That's what made sense."

Yet even Ellsbury understands that in order to appreciate the full magnitude of his remarkable 2011 season, it requires a glance back at the darkest hours of his young career. In three short seasons, he went from rookie phenom and fan favorite to an elusive talent who suddenly had some disconcerting -- and, as it turned out, totally unfounded -- baggage attached to his resume.

"He came to spring training this year and thought he had a point to prove, and oh my goodness, he did that," Francona said. "He wanted to play every inning of every game. I thought, 'OK, good,' but I thought it might take a while. He had no at-bats last season. But it hasn't mattered. He's been tremendous."

The year Jacoby would just assume forget started with the news the Red Sox were moving him to left field for the 2010 season to make way for veteran Mike Cameron.

"Cam was a really good center fielder," Francona explained. "Cam's long strides and the fact he hadn't played left, and the fact that Cam's arm was stronger, it just made sense. We were trying to put our best defensive lineup out there. We told Jacoby it wouldn't be forever, but for a year we were going to do this. I don't think he was thrilled, which I could understand."

Last April 11 in Kansas City, Ellsbury, playing left field, was sliding in to catch a foul ball. Former Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre didn't hear him calling for it and they collided. Ellsbury came up holding his side. The pain was sharp, jarring. When the Red Sox administered an X-ray, the diagnosis was "a bruise."

The "bruise" kept Ellsbury up most of the night. The team had an off day in Minnesota the following morning, so he dutifully reported to the park.

"I knew if I wanted to play the next game, I had to come in, get my treatment, swing the bat," Ellsbury recounted. "So I did."

He swung the bat. The pain was excruciating. He swung the bat again. He felt as though he was being stabbed with broken glass, a sensation that just about brought him to his knees.

"It really hurt," Ellsbury said, "but I was still trying to convince myself I could play the next day. I didn't know, obviously. Every day I kept trying to swing the bat. And every day I did that, I was making it worse for myself."

He took some Vicodin, some Celebrex. They gave him a shot in his ribs and he went out and played baseball.

Something was wrong. Sleep was out of the question. Pulling himself out of bed was an exercise in agony. He asked the team's medical staff to give him an MRI. Eventually, they did, but their delay in acquiescing was confusing, disappointing.

"You just want to know what's going on," Ellsbury said. "I just wanted to know what I was dealing with so I could figure out a way to move forward. That wasn't happening."

Ellsbury's uber-agent, Scott Boras, insisted on an MRI. The image revealed four broken ribs and landed his client on the disabled list. Ellsbury attempted to return on May 22, yet there was persistent, debilitating pain in his back. He made a diving catch against the Phillies and immediately felt a searing jolt that left him struggling to breathe. An additional MRI to the back revealed a fifth broken rib. He was moved back to the DL.

By then, Dr. Lewis Yocum was involved in Ellsbury's care. By then, the whispers that he wasn't willing to tough it out were affecting him. In June he retreated to Arizona to the Athletes Performance Institute to receive treatment. He stayed nearly five weeks, prompting Youkilis to wonder aloud why Ellsbury didn't stay in Boston and rehab with the rest of the wounded Sox players, a litany of key names that included Dustin Pedroia, Josh Beckett, Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek and, eventually, Youkilis himself.

"I was never questioning how hurt he was," Youkilis said last week. "But just because you're hurt doesn't mean it's a vacation. They [the Red Sox] were saying he had to go out there because the media was becoming a problem, asking questions every day, wondering how bad he was hurt. I know that's tough, but that's part of the gig.

"Me, personally, I think it's a generation thing. I was always taught if you are hurt you rehab here or in Fort Myers. That's all I was getting at."

Ellsbury said it became apparent to him he would be better off in Arizona, where he'd have five people to monitor his treatment, as opposed to asking the Red Sox staff to cater to him when so many other players also needed attention.

"I had to do hours of stuff," he said. "My rehab exercises, ice, stim, work on the rest of my body, some stuff in the pool, anything creative to keep me moving without damaging myself further. We have three guys [in Boston] to help with that. With all the other players we had down, it didn't seem right for me to eat up the time. The best thing I could do for myself and the team was to go to Arizona and have five people working with me, all day, every day."

His rehab in Arizona centered on taking baby steps in the pool, gentle exercises with light dumbells, a slow jog in the water. As time passed, the questions mounted about why it was taking him so long to recover. The word "soft" can be a death knell in a town like Boston, where toughness often trumps talent as the most admired trait (see Trot Nixon, Terry O'Reilly, Steve Grogan).

"That was the hardest thing," Ellsbury admitted. "Obviously, you'd like to be known as someone who goes out and plays hurt. I had never missed any time ever, and then all of a sudden people were questioning me.

"The reason I was out longer was because I tried to come back sooner. What I didn't know was every time I swung the bat, I was making it worse.

"People were saying, 'You have been out two weeks, that should be some good healing time,' but no. Actually it was the reverse because I was swinging the bat with five broken ribs and now I'm five weeks behind.

"It was frustrating. You learn from it. I just wanted to play as soon as I could. Injuries are part of the game. Sometimes you just play through them, and sometimes you just can't."

Back in Boston, his manager was irked by the doubters and irritated with his own players for contributing to the misunderstandings.

"Jacoby was defending himself for things that didn't need to be defended," Francona said. "He got real sensitive about it. Either way, it shouldn't have been that big of a deal. What I maybe should have done was explain it to our guys a little better."

The benefit, in retrospect, was the opportunity to sit and watch, to study his swing on film, to zero in on the tendencies of opposing pitchers. He saw what his coaches meant when they told him he was late getting his foot down when he swung at a fastball. He recognized the value of a balanced stance by witnessing hitter after hitter demonstrate it when they stepped up to the plate.

"When you have that much time to watch," Ellsbury said, "you become a better baseball player."

Boston avoided arbitration last season and awarded Ellsbury a $2.4 million contract, a significant upgrade over the previous deal in which he was paid just less than $500,000. Ellsbury is the property of the Boston Red Sox through 2013, and Epstein has said they'd like to ink him to a long-term deal. The Red Sox clearly won't be the only ones interested in doing that.

It will cost Boston to retain their center fielder. Although Ellsbury says he's turned the page, his agent Boras will not be inclined to offer a hometown discount to a team that (temporarily) moved his client out of center field and whose team doctor quibbled with him over an MRI.

Epstein has acknowledged mistakes were made in handling Ellsbury. Asked what he, in hindsight, would have done differently, Epstein answered, "I'd be more proactive internally and externally in getting out the message that when a player feels something, he's hurt.

"We see it over and over again. [Former Sox pitcher] Matt Clement went from pitching like an All-Star for half a season to throwing 88 miles an hour and not being able to get anyone out. His shoulder was bothering him and people didn't believe him. We did tests and couldn't find anything wrong, but when he went in to have shoulder surgery they told us it looked like a bomb had gone off in his shoulder.

"Even if you can't find anything, there's always something if the player says there is. Players want to play. That was the case with Jacoby.

"We didn't do a good job of protecting him, and that allowed the doubts to creep in."

Epstein said the miscommunication with Ellsbury has resulted in a change of protocol for the Red Sox. "We've changed our presumptions on how far down the checklist you have to go before we give a scan," he said.

Ellsbury prefers to forget the past and hold the future at arm's length for now. He's living in the moment, enjoying his newfound status as a clutch hitter after delivering back-to-back walk-off hits last week against Cleveland and driving in six runs in Saturday's win over the Yankees. Aside from the time he spends with Jed Lowrie, his longtime trusted friend, Ellsbury keeps to himself, for the most part, in the clubhouse. He was pleased at the genuine support his teammates afforded him when he was selected for the All-Star team. "I really felt like they had my back," he said.

There has been no epiphany over his lost season. He hasn't changed all that much, his teammates say. Jacoby still loves Nike, and Oregon, and stealing bases.

"A lot of guys in this room have talent," Youkilis said. "You can either stay the same, or get better. If you stay the same, you're done. There's tons of guys who come in, have a great year, then sit back on it.

"The whole thing with Jacoby is through all his ups and downs he's come out better, more consistent, more trusting."

Epstein looks at the numbers and the production, and claims, "If Jacoby can repeat a year like this one, then he will be among an elite group of players."

Boras will surely argue he's already there. Ellsbury will leave it up to them to quibble over his place in the game's hierarchy. He's back in uniform, feet planted firmly on the ground, swinging at offerings that look as big as beach balls.

And nothing hurts.

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.