ST. LOUIS — A blazing playoff start was followed by a frustrating playoff skid. Jacoby Ellsbury entered Game 5 against the St. Louis Cardinals 3 for 16 in the World Series with no RBIs.
He wasn’t producing at the top of the order. There was a level of frustration because the Red Sox’ biggest spark plug had been rained on in this series. He stepped to the plate Monday night in the seventh inning having not gotten the ball out of the infield in his first three at-bats against Adam Wainwright.
This time, Ellsbury was thrust into a significant situation, with runners on second and third and two out after pitcher Jon Lester failed to get down a bunt that could have produced an insurance run.
If Ellsbury did not deliver this time, the Red Sox would have been holding a precarious one-run lead heading into the late innings with a thin bullpen. Instead, Ellsbury poked a single to center that scored Stephen Drew and could have scored another run, but Shane Robinson threw out the lumbering David Ross at the plate.
Rounding the bases, Ellsbury pumped his fist, realizing that any insurance run in this series is critical and showing relief because he finally made an offensive impact. His RBI made it 3-1, and the score stood up to give the Red Sox the lead in the best-of-seven series, three games to two.
“Anything you can tack on, that’s huge in a game like this, just gives us a little more cushion, allows us to do a little bit more things defensively,” said Ellsbury. “But it’s exciting. We still have a lot of work, one game, but I am excited we’re going back to Boston.”
The top two hitters in the Boston order had been rather dormant until Monday, but Dustin Pedroia, batting in the 2-hole, doubled into the left-field corner with one out in the first inning off Wainwright. David Ortiz, whose hits have become as automatic as the docking machine at a Mass. Pike toll booth, followed with a double down the right-field line for a 1-0 lead.
It was critical to unnerve Wainwright early, because he soon gained comfort and allowed only one more runner to reach second base until the seventh inning. Wainwright has been notoriously shaky in the early innings. The Red Sox did not want to allow him to develop a rhythm in front of a large home crowd. They allowed Lance Lynn to do that in Game 4 but got away with it when the righthander began tiring in the middle innings.
Wainwright struck out 10, including the first six outs he recorded, but he never pitched with a lead. And then in the seventh, he allowed the bottom of the order to pepper him as Xander Bogaerts singled and then Drew drew a rare walk, setting up Ross’s ground-rule double to score Bogaerts.
Red Sox manager John Farrell allowed Lester to bat, but the lefthander failed to lay down a bunt. The lead was 2-1, and with runners at second and third and two out, the Red Sox were close to wasting a precious opportunity.
A one-run lead in the late innings here is a lot more flimsy than two runs. And that extra run looked much bigger when David Freese doubled with one out in the eighth against Lester. Pete Kozma followed with a fly ball to left field for Lester’s final out.
Koji Uehara came on, and because of the two-run lead, he was able to pitch with less pressure. He struck out Matt Adams on three pitches to end the eighth, then breezed through the order in the ninth.
It wasn’t a bases-clearing double or a booming home run, but Ellsbury’s base hit was indeed game-changing.
“Every run is so valuable — a one-run ballgame, anything could happen,” Ellsbury said. “A home run, get a guy on. Two-run ballgame, it’s only one more run, but it’s a cushion.
“I was just looking for something over the plate, something I could get in the outfield and score Rossy.”
The irony for Ellsbury is that these could be his final days in Boston. He will be a free agent this winter, and with Scott Boras as his agent, his career in its prime, and coming off another productive season, Ellsbury will look for a mega-deal. It’s uncertain whether the Red Sox will be his primary suitors, but he is trying to cherish these moments.
His best offensive year, 2011, was overshadowed by the “chicken and beer” fiasco and the September collapse, and he then missed considerable time last year with a separated right shoulder. Ellsbury has been a steady presence this year but had been silent in the Series until Monday.
“It’s great to be going back to Boston needing one win,” he said. “We put [the Game 3 loss] behind us. We know the importance of all these games. We can’t let one game in the past dictate this game. Definitely we put ourselves in a good position.”
The Red Sox needed Ellsbury to come through, and he knew it had been a long time coming. But this series has been filled with unlikely moments, including players escaping skids to deliver in the clutch, and Ellsbury was just the latest to come through.Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.