By David Willis
BOSTON — It took one mad Jacoby Ellsbury dash to cause rising Red Sox prospect Derrik Gibson to jump from his chair at Fenway Park and cheer at the top of his lungs.
"I couldn't believe what I had seen," said Gibson, the fastest man in the Red Sox organization. "I was at the game and I stood up because the play just gave me chills. He can turn a game upside down. I don't think the Yankees were ever in the game after that."
The play that still gives Gibson goose bumps wasn't a massive home run over the Green Monster and Citgo Sign. It wasn't a blast that looked as if the cover could tear off the ball in mid air.
The moment was when Ellsbury stole home on April 26 off bewildered Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte. It has emerged as the defining play of the 2009 Red Sox season.
A trip to a local New England sports pub, or 10 minutes listening to sports radio, and the odds are that the listener will encounter talk of Ellsbury's exploits on the basepaths during his just over two seasons in the big leagues.
But Ellsbury is just part of a growing change within the Red Sox organization. After about a century of waiting for aging free-agent sluggers to hit the all-important three-run homer, speed and baserunning are now key weapons for the Sox.
"We see something than can help us win games," said Ellsbury. "Whether it's stealing bases, getting into scoring position or anything that will help the team win. ... I might be able to, when I get on base, make things happen."
Speed has always been Ellsbury's signature. It was a main reason the Sox selected him with the 23rd overall pick in the 2005 amateur draft. And it allowed him to spend just two full seasons in the minors (stealing 105 bases) before being called up to Boston in 2007.
"Your personality dictates the kind of player you are," said Ellsbury. "Obviously, I have been blessed with speed. I want to utilize my abilities. When I was in college and in the minors, teams would throw seven or eight straight pickoffs to first base."
But Ellsbury is not just fast. The center fielder has used his speed in historic fashion.
Last year, Ellsbury became the first Red Sox player to lead the American League in stolen bases since Tommy Harper accomplished the feat in 1973 when he set Boston's single-season record with 54.
Ellsbury's 50 steals in the 2008 season were the third most in Red Sox history, bested only by Harper and Tris Speaker (52) in 1912. Boston has only have five other seasons in which a player has stolen 40 or more bases in its history, and just once since 1914. Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford is currently three stolen bases away from his fifth 50-plus steal season since 2003.
This season, it appears only an injury will prevent Ellsbury from setting Boston's all-time record. Through Thursday, he had stolen 41 bases (the seventh most in Sox history) in just 87 games.
With 66 games left in the regular season, Ellsbury is on pace to steal a stunning 78 bases. That would rank the speedster in a major league tie for the most thefts in a season since 1988. Jose Reyes (2007) and Marquis Grissom (1992) have also reached the mark.
"There's a lot of guys that have speed," said Luis Alicea, who managed Ellsbury in Single-A Lowell and coached him in Boston in 2007-08. "What helps him out is he knows when to go and when not to go. He's reading the pitchers very well. He's picking the right pitches to run on."
In fact, in 2008 he was caught stealing just 11 times. This year, he has been thrown out only seven times. For his major league career, he has exactly 100 stolen bases.
But he is not the only Red Sox player who will run. Never known for his speed, Dustin Pedroia stole 20 bases last season, and has taken 14 this year. Even power hitters Jason Bay (11) and Kevin Youkilis (4) have swiped a few bags.
"It's not just about speed," said current Lowell Spinners manager Gary DiSarcina. "It's about making good reads, knowing when to run and being an aggressive baserunner. Pedroia is a great baserunner."
DiSarcina has a unique perspective on the Red Sox. He was a Sox fan in his youth while growing up in nearby Billerica and staring at UMass Amherst. He was then an opponent during his 12-year major league career with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a team known for its small ball. He then spent a year as a NESN analyst before joining the Sox as a coach two years ago.
Thus, he has seen the change as the Sox have gone from a team of heavy sluggers to one that takes the extra base.
"It's definitely been a shift," he said. "It starts in the lower levels of the minors. For whatever reason, the days of lots of players hitting 50, 60, 70 home runs in a season are over. We have baserunning competitions throughout the minor leagues and we keep track of players going from first to third (base), reading balls in the dirt and taking the extra base.
"This can separate organizations. I came up with the Angels, and that is what (manager) Mike Scioscia always stressed. When you make it to the World Series, you are facing great pitchers and usually great defense. You have to find a way to score runs, and that can often be from running the bases well."
DiSarcina currently has the opportunity to work with two of the best athletes Boston has to offer. Baseball America ranks current Spinners second baseman/shortstop Gibson the fastest player in the Red Sox organization, and outfielder Ryan Westmoreland the organization's best athlete.
Speed and athleticism does not just impact the offense. From 1991-2004, only one Boston player earned a Gold Glove (catcher Tony Pena in 1991). In the past five years, Jason Varitek (2005), Youkilis (2007) and Pedroia (2008) have all been honored for their defense.
And one of the most well-known myths around Fenway is that the fastest man of all is pitcher Clay Buchholz, who is said to be quicker than Ellsbury. But that has yet to be proven.
"I think the Red Sox are looking for the complete player now," said Gibson. "Someone that can hit for some power, but steal 30 or 40 bags. We're getting back to true baseball now. That's how I impact the game. When I was drafted, and knowing what Ellsbury can do, I was excited."
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Jacoby Ellsbury has already delivered two of the most prolific stolen base seasons in Red Sox history.
1. Tommy Harper%1973%54
2. Tris Speaker%1912%52
3. Jacoby Ellsbury%2008%50
5. Otis Nixon%1994%42
8. Billy Werber%1910%40
9. Harry Hooper%1911%38
10. Harry Lord%1909%36
* — Through 87 games