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It's time to embrace Jacoby Ellsbury

BOSTON -- His teammates admit Jacoby Ellsbury isn't really healthy, and they are grateful for his willingness to fight through the pain of a compression fracture in his foot that could have ended his season.

Imagine if Ellsbury had shut it down. Can't you hear the narrative? There he goes again. So talented, but so soft. Won't play hurt because he's saving himself for the truckloads of cash that await him in free agency.

Instead, Boston's gifted center fielder sat out 16 games from Sept. 6 to Sept. 25, then laced up his cleats and submitted an American League Division Series in which he batted 9-for-18 (.500) with 7 runs and 4 stolen bases.

His value was highlighted in the Game 4 clincher, when he singled, stole second and motored to third on a wild pitch, then sprinted home on a Shane Victorino infield hit.

"He can take over a game," said Dustin Pedroia.

Pedroia recited the ways that is possible: his agility in the outfield, his hitting, his base-stealing prowess that enables Pedroia, when Ellsbury gets on, to work the count against a distracted pitcher.

There's also the postseason spike he provides in numbers across the board. His career batting average improves from .297 in the regular season to .310 in the playoffs. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ellsbury's plate appearances per stolen base improve from 13.3 in the regular season to 10.7 in the postseason.

Ellsbury is "all in" with a team that's so tight, the Sox planned a pool party at Big Papi's so they could learn, in concert, their opponent for the AL Championship Series.

He'll worry about his broken foot -- and free agency -- later.

"Ells is just gutting it out, playing great baseball, because he knows we need him," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Ellsbury maintained his habit of remaining scarce Thursday in a clubhouse that is brimming with enthusiasm, patriotic boxer shorts and wildly gnarly facial hair.

The center fielder sprouted his own beard to express his solidarity with a group of guys who left him gushing earlier in the season, "This is as much fun as I've had playing baseball."

His celebratory dance once the Red Sox advanced was certainly evidence of a happy -- and engaged -- team leader.

"The biggest vertical leap I've seen in my life," lauded Pedroia.

Ellsbury's considerable skills have never been in question, yet he was portrayed as somewhat of an outlier, an affable yet detached player with a small circle of friends (among them former teammate Jed Lowrie) who kept to himself in a veteran clubhouse that, in some corners, wasn't particularly welcoming.

In 2010 he suffered broken ribs, but was initially denied an MRI by the team's medical staff. Savaged by some media pundits who decreed him soft, Ellsbury retreated to Phoenix to heal, which, in turn, irked some of his teammates.

The criticism affected him. Ellsbury was unfailingly polite, yet cautious in subsequent dealings with the press.

As a result, surmises Saltalamacchia, the perception of Ellsbury as a "detached" teammate was hatched.

"A lot of people had their own opinions," Saltalamacchia said. "Until you get to know a guy, it's hard to paint a picture of him. He's the same now as he's always been.

"I think the media has been especially tough on him. They don't know the real guy, and I don't think they ever will because of the way things have gone.

"We've seen what he's been through -- the broken ribs, the separated shoulder. He's dealt with so much. It's hard to trust people when he sees what can go on here.

"But he trusts us. And we trust him."

The 2013 dynamics of the Sox clubhouse have vastly improved, creating an environment that has enabled Ellsbury to thrive both on and off the field.

"He really has opened up," noted Victorino. "He's joined in on the festivities. He's been a part of everything. Now, what was it that magnified that for him?

"I don't know. Maybe these guys surrounded him, made him feel comfortable, appreciated.

"Sometimes you don't get that. Sometimes, you don't understand how you are perceived, what you mean to a team.

"Everyone in here has embraced him, and he's done the same. It's great to see, because he's such a great baseball player.

"I'm not sure a couple of years ago Jacoby would have grown the beard."

I know what you're thinking. This outgoing, emotionally charged version of Jacoby Ellsbury, this (mostly) healthy Jacoby Ellsbury, this productive Jacoby Ellsbury, might consider staying in Boston now that he's re-established himself as an elite player in this baseball-crazed city. Maybe he'll even take a hometown discount ....

Stop. Don't do it to yourself. Enjoy Ellsbury while you can. Appreciate his redemptive season, but understand the facts haven't changed. Ellsbury is a Scott Boras client whose production could yield a contract in excess of $20 million a year. Chances are, another franchise in desperate need of star power and outfield help (yes, Seattle has already been floated as the landing spot) will overspend for him.

This is not the time for hand-wringing over Ellsbury's future in Boston. It's the time to recognize a 30-year-old ballplayer who has grown in a number of ways, who deserves to be acknowledged as a veteran leader with as much heart and grit as his more celebrated counterparts.

Newcomer Quintin Berry, who was added to the postseason roster because of his own exceptional base-stealing skills, said Ellsbury has gone out of his way to make him feel welcome in a clubhouse crowded with guys who have been there and done that.

"Every day I see him, he's the first one to say, 'How are you doing?'" Berry said.

Berry admits he, too, thought Ellsbury was one of those players who needed his space, who wouldn't express much emotion throughout a long baseball season.

"I was very surprised," Berry admitted. "I love it, though. He gets fired up -- a lot. That's what you need from one of your main guys, that energy that lifts a team. He's been doing so much of that lately. He's given us that extra surge we need."

Only two players have stolen more bases than Ellsbury in the postseason since 2007: Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, and both of them have over 100 more plate appearances than him. His impact on this 2013 postseason could continue to be electric.

Pedroia insists that Ellsbury has always been a game-changer, a team player, a willing participant in team chemistry, a passionate competitor who would have grown a beard in any season if you asked him to.

Every week could be Jacoby Ellsbury's last in Boston. That's just business.

In the meantime, the guy with the broken foot and the fuzzy chin helps lead the charge for another ring, in a city that has proved its own capacity to forget and forgive.