FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Of the four Red Sox players who missed significant time with injuries last season, no one's spring comeback was to be more closely scrutinized than Jacoby Ellsbury's.
Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Cameron and Kevin Youkilis all missed the final two months (or more) of the ill-fated 2010 season, but Ellsbury's absence was more notable, if only because he had tried to return earlier, only to re-injure himself, and because his relationship with some teammates seemed compromised because of the extended time on the DL and the nature of his rehab.
With all eyes squarely focused on Ellsbury then, his spring has, to date, been remarkable. He's hitting .423 this spring after Monday's 0-for-1 (with a walk) performance against the Yankees, and his ability to return to play, without missing a beat, has been practically seamless.
"He's swung the bat really well,'' said Terry Francona. "It's good to see. I know it's spring training, but you'd rather see guys swing it than not swing it. The ball's coming off his bat pretty well.''
That Ellsbury has driven the ball everywhere and displayed his instincts on the bases and in the field belies the fact that he missed all but 18 games last season.
That lost time can't be recaptured, but his spring is more evidence that Ellsbury boasts certain natural skills that aren't about to be forfeited by injury.
"Guys get those at-bats and the repetition is important,'' said Francona. "And he missed a full year of it. But he's got bat speed. He hit a ball out to left field the other day. It's been nice to see.''
Indeed, in three of his four starts previous to Monday night Ellsbury had multihit games, with four extra-base hits in that span.
"I don't have to say this,'' said Jed Lowrie, perhaps Ellsbury's closest friend on the team, "but he's a phenomenal athlete, a guy who just continues to get better all the time. It's pretty fun to watch. He's a really smart worker and the best way to describe that is that he knows when to work hard and get the most out of his body. I'm sure he put in a lot of work this offseason and it shows.''
"I knew I had to put in a lot of work to get to where I'm at right now,'' confirmed Ellsbury. "It was nice to just come into camp, ready to go. And it's nice having good results early in camp, but my main thing is just seeing the ball.''
It probably helps that Ellsbury has been returned to center field, after being moved to left last spring to make room for Mike Cameron. Center is Ellsbury's natural position and being backed there has helped smooth the transition.
In a spring in which he had something to prove, it helps that he is again in familiar and comfortable surroundings.
One Red Sox official noted that Ellsbury has changed his stance somewhat at the plate, lowering his hands from almost shoulder level to chest-high, the better to quicken his approach to the ball and, in particular, handle inside pitches.
"If I have, I didn't know it,'' maintained Ellsbury. "I just try to go up there and feel comfortable. If that's where they are, I guess it's because I'm more comfortable and I'll try to keep them there. I haven't tried to consciously try to change anything mechanically.''
If anything, Ellsbury seems almost bemused by the reaction to his play this spring. His 2009 season was a breakout year, and this month now seems like a logical extension of that year -- without the interruption that was 2010.
"It doesn't surprise me,'' he said of what's he shown. "It seems like, with all the people who've come up to me, it surprises other people that I'd be ready to go this early. But I worked to be at this point, to be ready from the get-go and show that I'm ready to go.
"Results aside, I knew I would be ready to go when I first stepped on the field at the minor-league complex. I knew I had already tested everything and I had confidence going in. That's huge. You want that confidence in your game.''
Talk that Ellsbury took longer than he should to recover from the broken ribs which sidelined him stung him, and he was especially sensitive to some criticism -- expressed privately and publicly by teammates -- that he should have been around the team as part of his rehab, rather than attending API in Arizona.
How much he's driven by that criticism this spring is unclear.
"He's pretty self-motivated,'' said Lowrie. "You put something in his way and he's going to knock it down.''
Regardless of bruised feeling, Ellsbury has made a point: he's physically recovered and primed for a comeback season. The distractions, the controversy, the second-guessing all seems part of the past.
"It's nice coming in where you just have to play baseball,'' he said. "I've played baseball pretty much my whole life and it's nice going in, playing the game you like to play.''