By CHRIS HERRING, WSJ
Entering Wednesday’s game here against the Tigers, the 30-year-old centerfielder was hitting .364 over the past two weeks. In the past week alone (during which he notched his 1,000th career hit), he’s hit .455 with three home runs and six RBIs.
It could be that a simple lineup change has made all the difference. After spending much of the season hitting third in the order, Ellsbury returned to his customary leadoff spot last week.
Manager Joe Girardi put Ellsbury back atop the order while outfielder Brett Gardner was out with a sore ankle, and based on his recent success, it would seem that he is indeed more comfortable as a leadoff man.
Gardner returned to the lineup Wednesday, but Girardi dropped him to eighth in the order while keeping Ellsbury leadoff.
(Perhaps more interesting than the leadoff situation is Girardi’s loyalty to Derek Jeter, who’s been a mainstay in the second spot despite the fact that an Ellsbury-Gardner combo at the top of the order would seem to work better.)
Conventional wisdom would seemingly lead Girardi to stick with Ellsbury, the American League’s reigning stolen-bases champion, atop the order. But Girardi said he doesn’t think that Ellsbury’s spot in the order is the reason for his recent surge.
“He’s done a really good job there, but I think he’s just a great player who was bound to have a hot streak like this at some point,” the manager said. “Really, it’s only that first at-bat to start the game that you’re a true leadoff man. In all the other innings, it’s completely dependent on where we are in the order.”
Girardi may have a point. During his career, Ellsbury has actually hit far better (.300 batting average, 414 on-base percentage) when he doesn’t lead off an inning than when he does (.290, .348).
And with middle-of-the-order power hitters like Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran struggling with injuries and cold bats this season, Girardi has had every motivation to put Ellsbury in the heart of the order.
In any case, Ellsbury said he didn’t see a substantial difference between batting third and leading off, pointing out that he’d begun hitting better prior to moving back to the top spot.
“I’ve felt pretty good for the last week or so, and that [pre-dates] when I was in the three hole still,” said Ellsbury, who has typically hit his stride last in seasons, hitting .327 in September and October over the course of his career. “I don’t think the change really affects me one way or the other.”
Whatever the case, and wherever he hits, the Yankees, for the sake of their playoff lives, need Ellsbury to keep doing what he’s been doing.
Jacoby lead off on a 9 hit inning and was brought in by Jeter:
Write to Chris Herring at firstname.lastname@example.org