|ESPN.com: BlogsColumns||[Print without images]|
BOSTON -- Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury was ridiculed. His tenacity and toughness were questioned because he was limited to 18 games during the 2010 season for a variety of rib injuries.
Veteran knuckleballer and clubhouse patriarch Tim Wakefield also suffered through a difficult season a year ago.
Both Ellsbury and Wakefield entered this spring with a purpose, knowing exactly what their roles would be and what they needed to do to help the Boston Red Sox win in 2011.
|With the Red Sox bullpen taxed, Tim Wakefield provided seven strong innings Wednesday.|
They're both doing exactly that, especially of late.
With the majority of Boston's starting rotation injured or struggling, Wakefield worked seven strong innings, allowing three runs on nine hits with one walk and seven strikeouts to help the Red Sox to a 6-4 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night at Fenway Park. He threw 106 pitches, 77 for strikes, to improve his record to 5-3 in 11 starts this season.
Wakefield has been in and out of the rotation this season, but when called upon as the club's unofficial sixth starter, he has produced.
"I take a lot of pride in that," he said. "That was my job coming into this year and I'm getting an opportunity to try to help us win in whatever capacity I might be in. I'm very proud of the job that I've done so far."
On the offensive side of things, Ellsbury completely dominated.
He went 3-for-5, including a home run, a pair of doubles, three RBIs, a stolen base and a run scored.
He led off the bottom of the first inning with a home run, crushing a 1-0 offering from Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero. It was Ellsbury's 10th homer of the season and his third leadoff shot.
Despite going 0-for-4 on Tuesday, he finished the three-game set against Toronto 7-for-14 with two runs scored, a triple, two doubles, a home run, five RBIs and two stolen bases.
On the season, Ellsbury is hitting .310 with 45 RBIs.
No one is questioning his determination now.
"When he first got here [in 2007] I knew he was going to be a great player," Wakefield said. "He's got all five tools and he's taking advantage of the opportunity, and he's getting better, he's maturing. He's an All-Star. What more can you say?"
The feeling is mutual between the teammates.
"Wake has been awesome," Ellsbury said. "He's a guy that just gets the ball and throws it. He works quick and guys are behind him. We like guys that just get the ball and throw it. The guys definitely enjoy playing behind Wake."
During the offseason when the Red Sox acquired slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez via trade with the San Diego Padres, and signed free-agent outfielder Carl Crawford, the biggest storyline of the winter was the lineup.
While it was a major discussion among media and fans, internally the Red Sox had a good idea how the batting order would be built.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona said time and again that the Red Sox are at their best when Ellsbury is hitting in the leadoff spot and having success. Despite a slow start to the season, Boston's offense has been potent and Ellsbury has been a major reason.
"He's been terrific in the field, on the bases and at the plate," Francona said. "He's settled into that leadoff role and he's been terrific."
While the batting order was the major offseason topic, the Sox's starting rotation was a close second.
If healthy, Boston could have had one of the best starting staffs in the majors. At this point, however, the rotation has been smacked across the face with the injury bug and there are health issues now with Jon Lester (lat strain) and Clay Buchholz (lower-back strain) both on the disabled list. Daisuke Matsuzaka is lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and John Lackey, who spent time on the DL with an elbow strain, has been seriously inconsistent.
He's been in and out of the rotation this season, making his 11th start of 2011 on Wednesday night. It was his fifth quality start and his fourth outing of at least seven innings, posting a 3-1 record with a 2.79 ERA in those games.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, who was named to his first All-Star Game, watches his 10th home run, a career high.|
"He gave us what we needed," Francona said. "He's been doing that and he has a way of doing that. He steps in and pitches professionally."
After a disappointing and trying 2010 season in which Wakefield was unhappy with his role, he spoke with Francona prior to spring training this year and knew exactly what he would be asked to do.
"Unlike last year, he had a chance to prepare for that a little bit, even mentally, and we knew there would be starts," Francona said. "We didn't know how many and we probably still don't, but it's certainly nice to have a guy who can step in like that. Every time he gets a win we're thrilled for him and us."
Wednesday's outing was critical for the Red Sox because the bullpen had been taxed the past two games due to a subpar outing by Lackey, in which he lasted only 2 1/3 innings on Monday, and Lester's exit with the lat strain after four no-hit innings on Tuesday.
Again, Wakefield came through.
"Very satisfying," Wakefield said after the game. "I knew I had to go deep into the game today. The bullpen has been taxed pretty heavily the last couple of days and it's something, as a starting pitcher, you take a lot of pride in to get deep in the game and try to preserve those guys for the next series."
After allowing a run in the top of the first and another two in the third, Wakefield settled in and kept the Blue Jays' offense at bay for the remainder of his outing.
"He did a great job and made some great pitches," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "The ball was moving all over the place tonight."
So far it's been a productive and satisfying season for both Ellsbury and Wakefield. They're both perfect examples of how baseball can humble a player, and how each could rebound from adversity and become major contributors for the Red Sox.
Ellsbury was recently named to the American League All-Star team, and the 44-year-old Wakefield is two wins shy of becoming the 108th pitcher in major league history, and the 89th modern-day hurler (since 1900), to record 200 wins.
He's made it no secret he wants that milestone.
"I'll worry about that when the time comes," Wakefield said with a smile. "We'll see where I fall [in the rotation] after the break and go from there."
Either way, it's been an important comeback season for both Ellsbury and Wakefield.
What a difference a year can make.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.