Ellsbury drives relentless Red Sox offense
Leadoff hitter allows lineup to force the action, ramp up pressure
BOSTON -- For Red Sox left fielder Jonny Gomes, it's pretty simple what Jacoby Ellsbury brings to the Red Sox.
"A lot of teams have their five-tool players hitting three or four," he said. "We've got a five-tool player hitting one. He's a game-changer."
Ellsbury changed Game 2 of this American Division Series quickly on Saturday. Like about five minutes after the Red Sox came to bat in the bottom of the first inning.
He led off with a bloop single to right, promptly stole second base and went to third on catcher Jose Molina's throwing error. Two batters later, he trotted home on Dustin Pedroia's sacrifice fly to center field.
And the Red Sox were off and running to a 7-4 victory over the Rays and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. They will try to close out the series Monday night at Tropicana Field at 6 p.m. ET on TBS.
Red Sox manager John Farrell calls his offense "relentless." That is, the Red Sox have tough outs up and down the lineup. They also have smart hitters. Besides leading the Majors in runs -- as if that weren't enough -- they also forced pitchers to throw more pitches than any other club.
Relentless is what the Red Sox were on Saturday night. They had the leadoff hitter on base against Rays starter David Price in four of the first five innings and scored at least one run in every one of them. Ellsbury was in the middle of a lot of it. He collected three hits, including two singles and a double, and scored three runs.
"I think the big thing is that we did a good job of putting pressure on each inning," Ellsbury said. "It's one thing to have a big inning and then kind of let up. We made it tough on them. He's such a good pitcher that's all you can do is keep the train moving."
By the time Price departed in the eighth inning, he'd allowed seven earned runs. David Ortiz hit a pair of booming home runs, but the Red Sox had Price in constant trouble.
"I think that's the key for a pitcher like Price, get to him early, don't let him get comfortable," Ellsbury said. "[We] put pressure on him each inning. I thought we did a pretty good job of that."
Afterward, the guys behind Ellsbury in the lineup, especially Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia, said his mere presence on the bases forces pitchers to throw more fastballs to give their catcher a better chance of throwing him out.
That strategy didn't work much in 2013 since Ellsbury led the American League with 52 stolen bases and also a 92.9 percent success rate. He's the first player to lead his league in both steals and stolen-base percentage since Tim Raines in 1981.
He's a tremendous weapon for the Red Sox. In a season in which he had 31 doubles, eight triples, nine home runs and a .355 on-base percentage, Fangraphs.com gives him a Wins Above Replacement number of 5.8, eighth-best in the American League among position players. Also according to Fangraphs.com, he saved 13 defensive runs, second among all American League center fielders.
This is an especially sweet time for Ellsbury. Not only is he proving himself an impact player as he approaches free agency. But he has returned to the Red Sox after missing 16 games with a right foot fracture.
At the time of the injury, there was some doubt about when -- or maybe even if -- he'd be able to return. He got back in time to play three games the final week of the regular season and has been as good as ever in the first two games of this series against the Rays -- five hits, two steals and four runs.
"It's playoff baseball," he said. "I'm definitely happy to be back and contributing."
His speed is a weapon in different ways. For instance, in the first inning, Victorino took a pitch in the first inning to allow him to steal.
But in the fifth inning, Ellsbury had the sense that Price was so focused on stopping him from stealing that he might give Pedroia a hittable fastball.
"Hopefully, even by me not going will give him better pitches to hit," Ellsbury said. "I was going to go, but decided to wait."
Pedroia drove a Price fastball to left for a double, and Ellsbury sprinted all the way home with the run that made it a 6-2 game.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.