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Top Stories of 2011, No. 6: Jacoby Ellsbury’s MVP-caliber season

12.26.11 at 12:00 pm ET
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For the final 10 days of 2011, WEEI.com will count down the top 10 stories of the year in Boston sports. Our next entry in the countdown is No. 6: Jacoby Ellsbury’s MVP-caliber season.

Check out our previous entries:
No. 10: NBA lockout
No. 9: NFL lockout
No. 8: Celtics’ playoff loss to Heat
No. 7: Patriots’ acquisitions of Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco

Jacoby Ellsbury was a force at the plate for the Red Sox in 2011. (AP)

Throughout Red Sox spring training in March, there was plenty of buzz surrounding center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. After a 2010 season in which Ellsbury played in just 18 games due to five broken ribs, there were questions about whether Ellsbury could ever return to his pre-injury form, whether he was a capable leadoff hitter, and even whether he was fully devoted to the team.

But Ellsbury said he had no concerns about his ability to come back following an injury-truncated season.

“I’m not worried,” Ellsbury said of his health. “I’m not worried at all. It’s not like I’m coming off a major surgery or anything like that. If anything, [the ribs] should be stronger.

“Anytime you break something and let it heal, it will be stronger.”

And so, like his healed ribs, Ellsbury set about proving he too would heal from 2010 and come back stronger.

The 28-year-old had a strong spring training. He hit .355 with a .385 on-base percentage and a .565 slugging percentage. He also showed some pop, knocking out three home runs in his 20 spring training games.

But his Florida success did not translate into April triumphs. Ellsbury, like the Red Sox team in general, struggled at the beginning of the season. He was batting in the leadoff spot for the first six games of the year, when the Red Sox were winless and Ellsbury collected just four hits in 24 at-bats.

Then, Ellsbury dropped to the bottom of the order for the next few weeks. At first, he still struggled to get on base in the eighth or ninth spot in the order, but then the hits started coming.

On April 22, Ellsbury moved back into the leadoff spot. He recorded a hit, an RBI and a walk in a 4-3 win over the Angels, marking the second consecutive game in which he registered a hit.

Little did the Red Sox know at the time that that April 22 was the second game of a 19-game hitting streak for the center fielder, a streak that would turn Ellsbury’s season around and help jump start the team.

Ellsbury hit .314 in May and .315 in June while the team moved from third place in the American League East to first. Ellsbury also hit nine home runs through June, matching a career high for homers in a season.

But players and coaches around Major League Baseball appreciated Ellsbury’s efforts through the first half of the season. Ellsbury’s colleagues selected him to participate in his first career All-Star Game as a reserve outfielder. Although Ellsbury’s performance in the Midsummer Classic was underwhelming (he struck out in both plate appearances), his performance after the break was electric.

At the time, Ellsbury told WEEI’s Alex Speier that his fast return from injury was no surprise.

“I can heal quick,” Ellsbury said. “If the doctor tells me six weeks, I want to do it in three. I broke my thumb one time playing football. [I had a] cast, played the rest of the season, played in the playoffs with a huge cast. I remember I had a pick with one hand in a state playoff game, cut it off myself for the next game. I just said, ‘I don’t need this.’ Injuries had never been an issue for me.”

Ellsbury’s hot streak continued in July, when he hit an astronomical .382 with a .430 OBP and .700 SLG. He knocked out eight home runs that month while doubling seven times and stealing six bases.

In early August, Ellsbury wowed fans when he provided clutch hitting in addition to power and speed. Ellsbury led the team to walk-off wins in back-to-back games against the Indians on Aug. 2 and Aug. 3. The first walk-off came via a single that drove in Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the bottom of the ninth inning to break a 2-2 tie. The next night, Ellsbury hit a home run to deep center field with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to lead the Red Sox to a 4-3 win.

By the end of the month, Ellsbury had 31 stolen bases and 24 home runs. He was just six home runs away from becoming the first Red Sox player to have a 30 stolen base/30 home run season. It was natural to be surprised that a player who had hit just 20 home runs through the other four seasons of his major league career would be able to gather 30 in one year, but hitting coach Dave Magadan never doubted Ellsbury.

“I got a lot of strange looks when I talked about how much power he had,” Magadan said. “At the beginning of the year, I was saying that he had as much raw power as anyone on our team. A lot of people scoffed at it, but I see him swing every day and just knew it was a matter of time.

“[The power was apparent] the first time I saw him. Watching him take batting practice, seeing how the ball took off his bat, it had a lot of carry. When he really got a hold of one, like I said, it was only a matter of time. He can hit them as far as anyone on our team.”

By the end of August, however, the Red Sox were a ticking time bomb. The team’s abysmal 7-20 September held it out of the playoffs, but Ellsbury continued to play well while the team faltered around him. He maintained a .358 batting average in September, his second-highest average of the season, while the team as a whole hit just .280 that month.

Despite Ellsbury’s surge, the Red Sox could not fight their way into the postseason. Still, Ellsbury qualified for quite a few awards. His final stat line for the 2011 season showed he hit .321 with a .376 OBP and .552 SLG. Ellsbury recorded career highs in RBIs (105), home runs (32), doubles (106) and hits (212).

With those numbers next to his name, Ellsbury collected his first career Silver Slugger at the end of the season. He also won his first career Gold Glove for his continued defensive prowess. Ellsbury did not record a single error all season and reached a career high in outfield assists with six.

After playing in 140 more games in 2011 than he did in his 18-game 2010 season, Ellsbury won American League Comeback Player of the Year. He was in contention for the AL MVP award as well but finished second to Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, who put up some of the most sensational numbers on the mound since the 1980s.

And while Ellsbury may have missed out on the playoffs and the MVP award, he certainly proved his spring training sentiment correct. Ellsbury may have been broken in 2010, but he healed and came back much stronger in 2011.

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