PORTLAND —The reception Jacoby Ellsbury received whenever he was introduced at Hadlock Field Tuesday night could have been right out of an episode of American Idol or the Oprah Winfrey Show.
But Ellsbury wasn’t at Hadlock to show off for his many, overwhelmingly female, admirers. It was to show himself and the Boston Red Sox he’s nearly ready to return to big league action after missing over a month with four broken ribs.
Ellsbury says he’ll know he’s ready to return to the parent club when he dives for a ball in the outfield or into a base without hesitation or pain. And, as the speedster himself put it before Tuesday’s game, “You really don’t want to go out here and just work on diving.” So he was in the Portland Sea Dogs’ lineup for the first time since 2007 to continue his rehabilitation assignment and test his tender torso in front of 7,368, Portland’s first sellout crowd of the season.
Playing center field and batting leadoff, Ellsbury remained upright for his eight innings of action in Portland’s 2-1 win over New Britain. He went 0-for-3 with a walk and a run scored.
“Even though I didn’t get a hit tonight, I was a lot more comfortable in the box,” he said. “I felt a lot more comfortable seeing the pitches. I thought I had some good takes. The hits will come.”
He had a quiet night in the field, recording one out, an easy fly to shallow center, and nearly colliding with left fielder Ryan Kalish on a shallow fly ball behind the shortstop.
“I saw something at the last second, so I just peeled off,” Ellsbury said. “He had it the whole way.”
Kalish said he had visions of becoming another Adrian Beltre for an instant.
“I was there and he saw me and it looked a lot scarier than it was,” Kalish said. “Definitely, everyone in the crowd was like ‘Ryan Kalish is going to hurt Jacoby again.’ I had to be more verbal (in the outfield) and when it was up in the air, the crowd was getting louder and louder, so I was yelling, ‘I got it,’ and he was yelling ‘I got it.’ It was a little scary, but I’m glad everything’s good.”
Ellsbury has been on Boston’s disabled list since April 20 with hairline fractures in four ribs suffered in a collision with third baseman Beltre on April 11 in Kansas City. His first game action came Monday as a DH in Pawtucket, where he went 1-for-3, scored two runs and drove in one.
Ellsbury walked on five pitches in his first Portland at bat, went to second on Che-Hsuan Lin’s single to left and trotted home to score the game’s first run when New Britain pitcher Carlos Gutierrez fielded a Kalish tapper up the first base line and threw it into right field.
His second time up, Ellsbury worked the count to 3-and-2 before bouncing out to third.
“My first two at-bats, I was really trying to see some pitches,” he said. “I thought I did pretty good just going deep in the count.”
He flew out to shallow right his third at-bat and fouled out to the catcher on his last swing. He didn’t return to the field for the ninth.
“You’re hoping some things will come up where he can test himself a little bit,” Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler said. “He got a chance to break back (on a leadoff triple) and go get a ball deep and got the ball off the wall and got it into the cutoff man. He was accurate on all his throws all night to the cutoff man. All that stuff affects him from the rib standpoint as far as throwing.”
“He didn’t look like he had many limitations,” Beyeler added. “His batting practice was good today. We were hoping we could get him running a little bit, maybe get him diving back into some bases but it didn’t work out that way. You can’t control that part of it, but he seemed to move around normal out there to me.”
“Normal” activities can be the most troublesome with the injury Ellsbury suffered.
“It’s just when I get my heart rate up, when I’m expanding my lungs,” Ellsbury said before the game. “The break was right in my chest. I think the thing that will put me over to game-ready is when I dive back, when I’m laying out on my chest for a ball or diving back into first base. When that happens, I’ll be ready to go.”
“You feel it just getting out of bed, just day to day stuff like that, not even playing baseball,” he said.
Portland starting pitcher Felix Dubront had his longest outing of the season to pick up the win. He went seven innings and gave up seven hits and a walk but didn’t surrender a run. He fanned six. Reliever Robert Coello gave up the Rock Cats’ only run in the eighth but hung on for the save.
While the Red Sox’ immediate plans weren’t clear after the game, the march of Major Leaguers to Portland could very well continue. Ellsbury was not expected to return for Wednesday night’s game, according to Sea Dogs’ spokesman Chris Cameron, but could be back at Hadlock later in the week. Center fielder Mike Cameron, who is rehabbing an abdominal injury, may join the Sea Dogs for Wednesday night’s 6 p.m. game against New Britain.
“It was fun out there. The fans were great,” Ellsbury said. “I remember playing here when we won it (the Eastern League title in 2006). They were there on the freezing cold days. It was pretty exciting to come back and see that crowd tonight.”