Home boy raises Red Sox excitement quotient

Gordon Edes

BOSTON – Here's what winning 10 in a row in April does for the Boston Red Sox.

It buries the notion, floated in these parts this spring, that this team lacks the entertainment value of its recent predecessors. The sizzle, the argument went, left town when Manny Ramirez did, with general manager Theo Epstein playing the Orkin Man, exterminating the last oddball personality out of the clubhouse.

The Dodgers got Mannywood. The Red Sox were left with deadwood, judging by the dispatches from spring training lamenting the absence of fresh story lines.

No dreadlocks, no drama. Nor comedy for that matter, the Red Sox roster as presently constituted lacking anyone who would take a midgame bathroom break behind the Green Monster.

With so many outsized personalities gone in recent years – Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar, Curt Schilling, Manny – the Red Sox supposedly were left with the excitement quotient of an ornithologist convention.

But try telling that to the 38,154 paying witnesses to truly grand larceny Sunday night in Fenway Park – Jacoby Ellsbury's steal of home in the fifth inning of Boston's 4-1 win over the New York Yankees, which completed a three-game sweep of their fiercest rival.

At what point did the Boston dugout know that Ellsbury, with the score 2-1, the bases loaded, two out and J.D. Drew at the plate, would break for the plate with Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte in a full windup?

"When he was safe,'' manager Terry Francona said. "I guess this is a point I'd like to sit up here and tell you I got here at 11 o'clock this morning, poring over reports, and that I'm a very smart manager, but what we have is a really fast player with some guts.''

Ellsbury led the American League in steals as a rookie last season with 50, but said he'd never attempted a steal of home in pro or college ball. Little League?

"It was probably 60 feet,'' he said.

But it's something he has joked about doing a number of times with third-base coach DeMarlo Hale. Ellsbury said he'd thought of going on Pettitte's previous pitch, with Angel Berroa, the Yankees' third baseman du jour, playing well off the line and the left-hander opting for the windup.

"It's not a joke to me over there,'' Hale said, "because I'm thinking, maybe he is thinking about it. We've talked about it a number of times over the years. He'll say, 'I think I can get it,' and as aggressive and confident as he is, sometimes I have to temper him and tell him the situation doesn't call for it.

"But tonight, it seems like everything fell into place. The third baseman was way off the line. That enabled him to get a pretty good lead, Andy Pettitte was in the windup. I tip my hat to him, because that situation was created and he wasn't afraid to go for it."

Pettitte, who two batters earlier had left an 0-and-2 fastball over the plate that David Ortiz lashed for a tie-breaking double, did not think to check the runner, so Ellsbury had dashed at least halfway down the line before Pettitte released the pitch.

"The biggest thing is getting the courage to go, I guess,'' Ellsbury said. "In that situation, bases loaded, you've got to make it.

"I was originally going to go feet-first, but then I saw J.D. kind of move – he saw me coming in – so at the last minute I decided to go head-first. That's why I stumbled at the end.''

Fenway blew up, fans eventually summoning Ellsbury for a curtain call. It was the first straight steal of home at Fenway in 15 years, Billy Hatcher the last to pull one off.

"Yeah, I was fired up,'' Ellsbury said. "Normally I'm pretty calm and don't really show too much emotion, but that will be memorable for me.''

Ellsbury's steal was the most electrifying moment in a weekend of thrills for Boston. The Red Sox won Friday night when Jason Bay hit a game-tying two-run home run with two outs in the ninth off Mariano Rivera, the greatest closing act in the game, and Kevin Youkilis hit a walkoff home run in the 11th.

They won Saturday after falling behind 6-0, Jason Varitek hitting a grand slam and Mike Lowell knocking in a career-high six RBIs in his last two at-bats in a 16-11 win.

No Sox surprises? Before the game Youkilis took ground balls at shortstop because backup infielder Gil Velazquez had been sent to the minors to make room for an extra pitcher. Youkilis was the emergency option in case something happened to Nick Green.

Dustin Pedroia, who reached base all five times he batted Saturday and eight times in the first two games, robbed Derek Jeter of a potential game-winning hit in extra innings Friday night. Bay, whose .494 on-base percentage is second in the AL only to Youkilis (.549), made the kind of catch Friday night in left field that was never part of Ramirez's repertoire.

"As long as we keep winning, we don't need any characters,'' Pedroia said. "We think we can compete with anybody.

"You know what I think? I think that just because Manny left, his personality and everything, that people think we're not an exciting team, but we have exciting players. We have guys who are gamers. Our superstars are. Youks is a grinder. Jason Bay is a grinder. …''

Pedroia could add his own name to that recitation.

"Yeah, yeah,'' he said. "That's how we're built. We're built on guys playing hard every day, never giving in, and never quitting. We have a lot of guys who buy into that, and we're going to win a lot of games.''

So will the Yankees, eventually. Alex Rodriguez will be back, and they'll straighten out their bullpen, and CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett will run off a bunch of wins. But this weekend belonged to Boston, and no one missed Manny for even a moment.