FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There is a palpable wariness about Jacoby Ellsbury now. A loss of innocence, perhaps the inevitable consequence of being at odds with the Boston Red Sox medical staff last season and ridiculously maligned by others as "soft" because he didn't play with fractured ribs.
Ellsbury is still capable of flashing that luminous smile, the way he did Saturday afternoon, when he had two doubles and a home run against the Florida Marlins and was asked if he could recall the last ball he hit over the fence.
"Every day in batting practice,'' he said.
But mostly he answers in clipped, prepackaged sentences, offering little beyond standard athlete speak and guarding against any line of inquiry that would require him to revisit last season, which he has placed off-limits since the start of camp.
Of course, it makes sense for Ellsbury to avoid replaying 2010. There's little to be gained musing about disputed diagnoses, teammate Kevin Youkilis musing why he wasn't with the team during his rehab and critics wondering why it was taking him so long to get healthy.
Still, it's regrettable that one of the team's more engaging personalities has decided it necessary to be on alert whenever inquisitors come around, as they did after Saturday's 9-2 win over the Marlins, in which he raised his spring average to .440 (11-for-25) with his second three-hit game this week.
Here are his answers to the first three questions from the media:
"I feel good. Nice to be out there."
"It feels good, just to be out there playing."
"I just wanted to get in there, get my reps, see my timing. That was the main thing I was worried about."
The Red Sox, of course, wouldn't care if Ellsbury decided to conduct interviews in native Navajo tongue if he continues to play this way, and most fans would probably feel the same way. The Sox are looking for Ellsbury to serve as catalyst to what promises to be one of the game's most potent lineups. They got a glimpse at the possibilities Saturday, when both Ellsbury and No. 2 hitter Dustin Pedroia went 3-for-3, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez hit an RBI single and sacrifice fly in his spring debut and David Ortiz hit two doubles.
With less than three weeks until the April 1 season opener, the Sox have yet to unveil a starting lineup that includes both Gonzalez and the other new star hitter, Carl Crawford, integrated with a returning cast of healthy stars such as Pedroia, Youkilis and Ellsbury, along with the still-dangerous Ortiz, veterans J.D. Drew and Marco Scutaro and the catching combo of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek.
That could come Monday night against the Yankees, when Crawford and Gonzalez are expected to play together for the first time.
"We've a lot of talent on this team,'' Ellsbury offered in one of his more expansive answers. "Exciting possibilities. In the winter, Red Sox Nation, Boston were excited, and rightfully so. This team has a lot of talent.''
Manager Terry Francona had said at the start of spring that while the Sox were best served with Ellsbury batting leadoff, they were prepared to hit him ninth if he needed more time, after playing in just 18 games in 2010. Ellsbury has made it obvious that won't be necessary.
"It's pretty safe to say he feels good about himself,'' Francona said.
Ellsbury came into last season on the cusp of cementing his stardom, coming off a year in which he batted .301 and stole a major league-leading 70 bases. The Red Sox, not entirely satisfied with his defense, planned to shift him to left field, but that plan was shredded by injuries to both players. The signing of left fielder Crawford assured Ellsbury of a return to center field, and bench coach DeMarlo Hale (who works with the outfielders) and Francona also noted how well he has taken charge of the outfield.
"From day one, I've taken that leadership role seriously,'' Ellsbury said, noting that he has had the luxury of working with veteran cornermen from the time he arrived in the big leagues.
But ask him if he is determined to re-establish himself as an elite player, and the wariness surfaces once more.
"I'm always determined,'' he said. "I don't need any extra motivation for that.''
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.