The reaction was swift.
Jacoby Ellsbury, racing back into first base when Phillies catcher Humberto Quintero fired a pickoff throw behind him, slammed his heel into the bag and rolled his ankle. He left an inning later for precautionary purposes, and sat out for a couple of meaningless spring training exhibition games to permit the issue to heal.
The characterization that followed says a great deal about the perception of the outfielder. In half-jest, the twitterverse flickered with unflattering portrayals that approximated something like:
"Here we go again."
"See you in July."
The implication, of course, is that Ellsbury is something between fragile and dispassionate, that he is both injury-prone and then intentionally deliberate in making his return to the field, as if he inherited the baton from J.D. Drew.
The reality? That would appear to be different, at least according to other baseball players.
"People say, 'Oh, is he going to be healthy?' If he doesn't break his frigging ribs, he'll be healthy," said outfielder Jonny Gomes, who has spent the last several offseasons working out with Ellsbury at Athletes' Performance in Arizona. "He's not coming out because his thumb is barking. This guy had two [expletive] car accidents. He ran into a monster at third base, and it took someone a long time to figure out that it broke. And then it was Reid Brignac dropped a WWE knee to his shoulder. It wasn't like he wasn't running to first because of his hamstring and it's hot, or his oblique or his thumb or his pinkie. He had two stints on the DL because he had two monster frigging injuries."
Ellsbury plays baseball as a contact sport. He plays it at a different, full-speed gear than most, with physical jarring an inevitability. As a center fielder and base stealer, he must throw himself around the field with some abandon, crashing into walls, diving on the field, sliding into bases. There is a physical toll that such a style of play takes, yet Ellsbury has proven throughout his career capable of playing through the bruises and soreness that is inevitable.
He once suffered a concussion with Oregon State while crashing head-first into a pole behind a fence in right field; though ruled an inside-the-park home run when the ball came out of his glove on the transfer, eyewitnesses for OSU and Stanford suggested the umpire blew the call on one of the best catches they'd ever seen. (Ellsbury, whose head gushed blood after the play, missed three games, but only due to NCAA concussion rules stipulating the duration of his absence.)
"That's the way I've always played -- I always play hard," suggested Ellsbury. "The position I play, stealing bases, diving into walls -- no one plays 100 percent. I play through stuff all the time."
In the seasons when Ellsbury did not experience what Gomes referred to as the car wrecks, the outfielder has been durable. In 2008, when the Sox were trying to balance his playing time with that of Coco Crisp (thus sitting him early to manage the roster), he played 145 games. He bumped that total up to 153 games in 2009 and, after missing virtually all of the 2010 season, he played in 158 games en route to runner-up status as the AL MVP in 2011.
Ellsbury has played through the normal physical wear of a season on plenty of occasions when he could seek a day to rest and regenerate. He doesn't advertise the fact, mindful that an opponent's awareness of an injury could impact how they approach him as a base-stealing threat, which could in turn have implications for how they approach a hitter when he's on base. (If, for instance, Ellsbury was known to have a knee or ankle injury, a pitcher might not slide step with Dustin Pedroia at the plate.)
Of course, Ellsbury -- who, after sitting for three days, returned to the lineup on Thursday with one of his best games of the spring, going 2-for-3 with a double and a walk -- has twice missed considerable stretches of seasons, at considerable cost to the Sox' ambitions of contention.
In 2010, he collided with a freight train in shallow left field when Adrian Beltre's knee crashed into his chest at full speed. The collision was so violent that it broke not just four ribs in the front of his chest but also one in the back, the sort of impact seen in car crashes rather than on the baseball field. He missed a couple of months and tried to return, only to experience a new fracture when he did so. While he was criticized at times for the pace of his return, the reality is that he was back on the field before the rib had fully healed.
Then, last year, after taking off at full speed for second base on a pitch, his arrival at the bag coincided with that of a ball in play (off the bat of Dustin Pedroia) and a shortstop Reid Brignac. Ellsbury went hard into Brignac, wiped him out and had the shortstop's knee plow into his shoulder.
A dislocation was initially feared, at the potential cost of a season; instead, it was a severe subluxation that kept him out until the All-Star break. Still, the injury was one of sufficient severity that Ellsbury struggled upon his return. He lost strength in the shoulder while it was in a sling, and so even though he made it back, he ended up hitting just .271 with a .313 OBP and .370 slugging mark in 74 games, never exhibiting the form that turned him into the best position player in the American League in 2011.
"The tough thing is, when you sustain any type of injury and you're out for that extended period of time early in the season -- you train all offseason to get to spring training and get where you need to be," said Ellsbury. "Unfortunately, that happened right at the get-go, which could be good or bad. On one hand, you can come back for the second half. But all the training, the lifting, getting strong -- you can't do anything with that shoulder.
"For me, you feel like you can go out there and dive, but you didn't have time to build it back up. I was happy just to get back to playing and trying to help the team win, but obviously just never got back to where I would have liked to be last year."
Still, he has moved on, does not dwell on how one all-out play sabotaged his opportunity to build upon his breakout year. There is little value in dwelling on the past, or waging a fight for perception related to a time (and health situation) that has come and gone.
The best way to win the fight for perception? To play, to produce, to dominate. The ultimate rebuttal to critics who emerged in 2010 was to perform at an outrageous level in 2011. The same is true now as he tries to separate himself from the injuries and on-field struggles of 2012.
This spring, Ellsbury suggests, after the on-field struggles with a weakened shoulder in 2012, the difference has been discernible. He followed his typical, rigorous program at Athletes' Performance, putting him in position to perform at more customary levels.
"He's just real educated student of his body. I've worked out with some meatheads who lift huge weights and then their back blows out. He knows what he's doing," said Gomes. "He's probably one of the strongest pound-for-pound guys I've ever worked out with in my life."
The offseason program -- much like Ellsbury's precise pregame routine, which Jackie Bradley Jr. suggested he's studied at considerable length this spring in order to replicate it -- was purposeful. And now, at the conclusion of a spring that has the outfielder hitting .277 with a .370 OBP and .383 slugging mark (with five extra-base hits -- all doubles -- in 47 at-bats), Ellsbury feels ready to play to levels more familiar than what he experienced last year.
Asked how it was different this spring, when he is coming off of a season of disappointment, compared to a year ago, when he was working off a year in which he had performed at an elite level, the 29-year-old shrugged off the distinction.
"I always have confidence in myself. I think that's why I work so hard -- I don't take anything for granted," said Ellsbury. "I know how I prepared for . You learn from that year and you try to make improvements on that. I think you get lackadaisical if you think you know it all. But I'm always hungry, always trying to push that bar a little bit higher. It's just the competitor that I am. It doesn't matter what I do -- I'm always trying to get a little bit better.
"I feel strong. I feel good. I feel very solid. I feel like the stuff I did, it's even stronger from all the meticulous work, all the time spent in the offseason," he added. "I'm excited. It's nice to see everybody come in, just excited for the year. I'm here, healthy, excited for the opportunity and ready for the year. Last year was last year. Whether you won the World Series or didn't win a game, it's a new season, a fresh start, and that's why everyone is optimistic, feeling good about themselves. It will be exciting. I'm definitely looking forward to it."
At the same time, in one respect, Ellsbury does look back. While his attention has been on a 2013 season after which he'll be a free agent, the outfielder has also made sure to appreciate what he's had over the course of his time with the Red Sox.
"It's the team that drafted me in 2005, the team I first got to play for, they've given me the opportunity. I got to win a World Series my first year," said Ellsbury. "I've been playing for a great, storied franchise. I couldn't ask for anything more. I definitely have been very grateful and very excited to put on a Red Sox uniform every single day. I feel very fortunate to have done that for my whole career. It's pretty neat. It's been eight years -- not a lot of people can say they've been in the same uniform for eight years. That's pretty special for me."
Still, while he is certainly aware that free agency lies on the other side of 2013, he is careful not to look past what is immediately ahead of him. After the limitations of last year, he is looking forward to being on the field, and on the impact he can once again have on his team.
"The main focus is winning," said Ellsbury. "That's what's important for the team and me because of what's happened the last few years. On both sides, this is an important year for everybody."