Commentary

Ellsbury's reached the next level

With back-to-back walk-offs, Sox center fielder is looking like superstar

Updated: August 4, 2011, 9:56 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was propelled out of the dugout to home plate, where he jockeyed for position in the delirious welcoming party awaiting Jacoby Ellsbury on Wednesday night, by something that went beyond the sight of Ellsbury's drive clearing the center-field wall for a walk-off home run.

Papelbon was happy for the win, of course, but happier still that it was Ellsbury who sprinkled magic dust on the Fens for the second straight night.

"I've been on Ells for the past few years, trying to explain to him how good he can be,'' Papelbon said after Ellsbury's two-out home run to dead center in the bottom of the ninth gave the Sox a 4-3 win over the Cleveland Indians, less than 24 hours after Ellsbury's ninth-inning, one-out single made them 3-2 winners Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaJonathan Papelbon congratulates his friend and teammate Jacoby Ellsbury after Ellsbury's walk-off home run Wednesday.

"Ells is a good friend of mine,'' said Papelbon, who was at a loss to explain what it was that drew them together, only that they had made a lasting connection. "I root for him very hard, and I know how good he can be.''

Papelbon also knows what Ellsbury went through last season, when he was injured far worse than was originally perceived and ended up missing most of the season while enduring taunts about his toughness.

"I don't think anyone but Jacoby can understand what that was like,'' Papelbon said. "But I know I always had his back.''

They all do now, especially after Ellsbury became the first Sox player since David Ortiz on those now-mythical October '04 nights against the Yankees to deliver back-to-back jolts of elation. Ortiz also did it in consecutive games (separated by a day off) in 2006 against the Phillies (10th-inning homer, 12th-inning single), but you have to go back to 1978 and the Sons of Don Zimmer for the last time a Red Sox player hit consecutive walk-offs -- Clell Lavern (Butch) Hobson.

"I didn't know what to do once it went over and I was running around the bases,'' said Ellsbury, who thrust one fist in the air between first and second, then shed his helmet before absorbing a second night of uninhibited pummeling by his teammates. "I've never experienced that in the big leagues. It was fun.''

Ellsbury did own up to hitting 17 home runs in 16 little league games as a kid. But are we now bearing witness to the emergence of a big league superstar?

"Ells has always been a superstar to me,'' Ortiz said. "He's had health problems, this and that, but he plays the game like a superstar.''

The home run, which was off Cleveland reliever Joe Smith, came too late for Tim Wakefield, who was bidding for his 200th career win but left after giving up a game-tying double in the seventh. However, it gave Papelbon his second win in two nights, and the Sox their 10th win in their past 14 games and eighth walk-off of the season, and kept the Sox a game ahead of the Yankees in the American League East with this weekend's showdown in the Fens looming.

"You know, for us as a ballclub,'' Papelbon said, "those clutch situations -- David with his clutch hits, Carl [Crawford] with his clutch hits, Ells, all these clutch hits that you see -- when you come full circle to that last week in September, they tend to make a big difference.''

Ellsbury's home run, which as it hurtled from home plate raised doubts about elevation but not about distance, served as a defining measure of how his game has evolved -- from strictly a speed game to a speed-and-power game. It was his 18th home run of the season and with his 31 stolen bases marked him as the first Sox player to hit for that kind of power while stealing at least 30 bases. Tommy Harper, who stole 54 bases in 1973 (a club record broken when Ellsbury swiped 70 in 2009), hit 17 home runs that season.

"I'll talk, but I won't talk about Jacoby,'' said a teasing Adrian Gonzalez, within Ellsbury's earshot.

"I heard great things about him coming into the season,'' said Gonzalez, who had two hits Wednesday and is batting .500 (27-for-54) during his career-best 13-game hitting streak, raising his average to .357.

"I wasn't around the last couple of seasons to see where he was, but he has definitely put himself among the elite center fielders in the league.''

It goes beyond simply riding a wave, Gonzalez said.

"Hitters get better,'' he said, "especially if you're a guy who wants to learn and has that drive. That's why people say you're getting in that prime. When you're young, you're just out there, hitting, you don't have a lot of understanding of what's going on. As you get experience, things click, you start showing who you're going to be the rest of your career.

"Some guys think they made it and that's when they start going downhill. You see after one, two years they go downhill because they think they've made it. Jacoby's not that guy. He's a guy who wants to learn and knows you can always get better.''

And on two sweet August nights on Yawkey Way, Ellsbury also offered a taste of that rarest of baseball delicacies, déjà vu.

"I can get used to this, without a doubt,'' said Mike Aviles, newly arrived from Kansas City, one of baseball's outliers. "Every night you have a legitimate chance of winning. Look around this locker room, there are a lot of guys accustomed to winning. This city's accustomed to winning. The bottom line is, win games.''

How do you say déjà vu in Spanish, someone asked that other connoisseur of the art, David Ortiz.

Big Papi laughed. "Déjà vu,'' he said.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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