NEW YORK -- The stakes couldn't be any higher for Jacoby Ellsbury or the Boston Red Sox. His next contract is on the line; for the club, a possible return to the World Series, in which Ellsbury also has a significant vested interest.
That's why it should come as encouraging news that Ellsbury's injury might not be as ominous as it sounded when manager John Farrell announced that Ellsbury had a fractured navicular bone in his right foot. According to a baseball source, the fracture is a tiny, hairline fracture at the top of his foot. That's why Ellsbury was able to play for a week after fouling a ball off the foot Aug. 28.
The Sox are proceeding cautiously, but the source said that, barring an unexpected setback, Ellsbury could be back within 10 days and probably no later than the final week of the season.
The terminology Farrell used was that an examination by Dr. Tom Clanton in Denver revealed a compressed fracture of the navicular bone, which is a non-displaced fracture. The navicular bone is one of the small bones located at the instep, the arch at the middle of the foot. The bone is attached to a large tendon that holds up the arch of the foot.
A non-displaced fracture means that there was no separation or shift of the bone after the fracture.
Beyond all the medical jargon, what everyone, including Ellsbury, wants to know first and foremost is how long the injury will keep him sidelined.
Dustin Pedroia had the same injury to his left foot three years ago, tried playing seven weeks later (remember him taking ground balls while sitting on a chair?), lasted two games, then had season-ending surgery early that September, during which doctors inserted a screw in his foot.
Cody Ross had the same injury last season when he fractured the bone in his left foot, and beat initial projections of six to eight weeks by returning after missing 27 games.
In all three cases -- Ellsbury, Pedroia and Ross -- the injury occurred the same way, with the player fouling a ball off his foot. The severity of such injuries obviously can vary.
Despite the fact that only three weeks remain in the regular season, Farrell expressed confidence that Ellsbury will return before October.
"We feel like he'll return this year," Farrell said. "He's in a boot right now and will be for the time being. We feel like he'll be back to us before this year is out." And Farrell insisted he wasn't talking about Ellsbury returning in time for the team's Christmas party.
"We're hopeful of the regular season," he said.
Farrell's confidence is probably based in part on the fact that Ellsbury continued to play for the better part of a week after fouling a fastball from Baltimore Orioles reliever Francisco Rodriguez off his foot on Aug. 28 at Fenway Park. At the time, of course, no one was talking about a fractured bone, which raises the question of how much further damage, if any, Ellsbury did when he aggravated the injury last Thursday night when he stole second base in Yankee Stadium. The source said doctors assured Ellsbury that he cannot do further damage.
Perhaps you remember, when Pedroia was hurt, manager Terry Francona expressing similar hopes for the Sox second baseman.
"I think anybody who's been around Dustin would bet on him being quicker than anybody humanly possible healing," Francona said of Pedroia, who played this season with a torn ligament in his thumb but was rendered mere mortal by the foot fracture.
Ellsbury's history doesn't inspire a similar wager. When Ellsbury fractured ribs in a collision with third baseman Adrian Beltre in the first week of the 2010 season, he was initially told he had bruised ribs. It's why he took painkillers, he later said, to keep playing.
When the fractures were finally diagnosed, Ellsbury later charged that Sox medical director Thomas Gill missed one, and it wasn't until agent Scott Boras directed Ellsbury to Dr. Lewis Yocum for a second opinion that he finally understood the full scope of his injury. He wound up playing just 18 games that season, and, in challenging the Sox medical staff, Ellsbury suffered the collateral damage of being labeled a "soft" player, which left him embittered.
The Sox have overhauled their medical staff significantly since the ribs fiasco, and Jonny Gomes, for one, came to Ellsbury's defense this spring, likening his injuries to "car wrecks" that could have happened to anyone and hardly make him either injury-prone or soft. This latest injury falls in the same "car wreck" category, but when prospective suitors are debating whether to invest tens of millions in Ellsbury when he becomes a free agent this winter, you wonder how much the injury-prone label will surface.
That's why it should come as a relief to Ellsbury that the fracture is as small as it is, and he should be able to return in a timely fashion.
The Red Sox have appeared extremely sensitive to protecting Ellsbury's image, with both Farrell and GM Ben Cherington saying how badly Ellsbury wants to keep playing. That sentiment was also expressed in the Sox clubhouse Sunday.
"Knowing Jacoby, he's going to do what he can to try and play," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "I'm not a trainer or doctor, so I don't know what they've told him or what his decision is. I know that he wants to be out there.
"At the same time, we've got a lot of guys in this clubhouse who can pick him up. You don't want to lose anybody like Jacoby, but we've just got to continue to fight and do what we do."
For now, that battle will be waged without Ellsbury. When he returns will go a long way toward authoring what might be the last chapter of his Red Sox career.