FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jacoby Ellsbury stood in the batting cage, swinging freely from the left side at balls set on a tee and thrown underhanded from 15 feet.
The Red Sox fleet center fielder didn’t wince or wail in pain on a sunny Wednesday morning.
Ellsbury feels good again. He said he’s 100 percent healthy after he broke five ribs last year then endured more heat when his willingness to play hurt was questioned on talk shows.
No wonder, after being limited to 18 games, he has no interest in talking about his turbulent 2010 season.
“I put it in the past,” Ellsbury said of the criticism. “I’m moving forward, excited about 2011.”
But was it unfair to question his toughness when only he knew how he really felt?
“I’m moving on,” Ellsbury repeated, “moving on, 2011.”
Racing on may be more like it.
He set a club record with 70 stolen bases in 2009. Now he’s joined by left-fielder Carl Crawford, who swiped 60 bags that year and 47 last year before leaving Tampa Bay for Boston as a free agent.
Ellsbury wouldn’t predict who would steal more bases this year, but, “Who’s faster? I wouldn’t bet against myself,” he said with a smile.
It’s an expression that was rarely seen last year when he may have had more MRIs or CT scans than RBIs (5).
He wasn’t thrilled when the Red Sox decided before the season to move him to left field after acquiring Mike Cameron to play center. Then on April 11, Ellsbury broke his ribs in his sixth game when he and third baseman Adrian Beltre collided while chasing a ball in short left field.
Ellsbury’s first comeback ended on May 24 after just three games, again because of fractured ribs. He returned on Aug. 5 and lasted just nine games before re-injuring ribs on the left side in a collision at first base with Rangers pitcher Tommy Hunter in Texas.
For the rest of the season, Red Sox fans wondered what was taking him so long to return.
“It was awkward, but it’s all just noise and meaningless,” Boston general manager Theo Epstein said Wednesday. “The bottom line is everyone was trying to find solutions. He was trying to get back on the field, we were trying to get him back on the field, and his injuries were severe enough that that wasn’t possible.”
It is now.
Manager Terry Francona said there are no limitations on what Ellsbury can do in spring training. And Ellsbury said he’ll have no hesitancy if he has to dive for a fly ball or slide headfirst into a base.
“I’ll be able to play with natural aggressiveness, just like I’ve always played,” he said. “I’m not worried at all. It’s not like I’m coming off of major surgery or anything like that. If anything, (the ribs) should be stronger than they were. Any time you break something and let it heal, they’ll be stronger.”
Beltre is gone now, allowed to leave as a free agent for Texas.
“He’ll definitely be missed,” Ellsbury said with a diplomatic grin. “He’s a good teammate and I saw him this offseason, but I wish him the best.”
This season, the biggest danger could come from Crawford. With the two speedsters racing for balls hit into left-center field, more collisions are possible.
“There’ll definitely be communication,” Ellsbury said. “It’ll take us some time to get used to.”
With Crawford’s ability to cover more ground than former Boston left fielders Manny Ramirez and Jason Bay, Ellsbury can shade more toward J.D. Drew to protect the deep triangle just on the right field side of straightaway center.
“I think J.D. gets overlooked in right field because of those two (Ellsbury and Crawford),” starting left-hander Jon Lester said. “He’s a pretty good outfielder as well. I don’t imagine there’s going to be a lot of fly balls that find green grass out there.”
The addition of Crawford and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez drew the most attention in the offseason, but the return of Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, sidelined for extended periods with serious injuries, gives the Red Sox a potent lineup.
Francona would like Ellsbury to lead off that lineup. And if he gets on base, the pitcher will have to watch him closely rather than focus only on the batter.
“You have a guy that can change a game with his legs,” Francona said. “I don’t know why he would dwell on his ribs being broken. It’s a fresh start. He feels healthy.”
Francona hasn’t announced his lineup, but former AL rookie of the year and MVP Pedroia could bat second now that his broken foot has healed.
“He brings a ton to our team,” Pedroia said of Ellsbury. “It’s going to be fun to watch him and Carl out there running and getting on base and doing their thing.”
Ellsbury did his thing in his first three seasons with the Red Sox, hitting .353 in 116 at bats in 2007 then .280 and .301 in his first two full seasons. He already has 136 stolen bases, fifth most in team history. But he hit just .192 and stole seven bases last year.
“I’ve just got to be myself, play my game,” he said. “As long as I do what I’m capable of doing, things will work out perfect.”
Even though 2010 was a lost season, the Red Sox gave him a $2.4 million, one-year contract to avoid arbitration, a nearly fivefold increase over his $496,500 salary last year.
“We all feel like last year was a blip and we have him as one of our core, young players entering his prime,” Epstein said. “He’s going to be here for a long time.”