BOSTON -- When the season started, all the Red Sox wanted Jacoby Ellsbury to do was stay on the field. If he did that, they assumed, good things would happen.
Not only did the center fielder stay healthy and get back to the level he was at before left rib fractures limited him to 18 games in 2010, but he took his game up about three notches.
For his monster season, Ellsbury was named the American League's Comeback Player of the Year. The award was voted on by all 30 MLB.com beat writers. Lance Berkman of the Cardinals took home the award in the NL.
Though the Red Sox had a nightmarish September and missed the postseason by one game, the player who kept them going right until the end was Ellsbury.
Who could forget the three home runs Ellsbury hit over a day-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 25, when the season was very much on the line? That was the same day he became the first 30-30 player (30 homers, 30 stolen bases) in Red Sox history.
"That's my job -- to try to create runs in any way possible, to score runs and drive them in," Ellsbury said recently. "I'm very proud of that accomplishment."
It's hard to find anything Ellsbury didn't accomplish in 2011.
Over 158 games, he hit .321 with 119 runs, 212 hits, 46 doubles, 5 triples, 32 homers, 105 RBIs, 39 steals and a .928 OPS.
"That's a pretty amazing feat," former Red Sox manager Terry Francona said late in the season. "This kid has turned into some kind of player. He's taken a lot of accountability. We used to talk about Johnny Damon being out there all the time. This kid has done some kind of job."
The Comeback Award could be just the start of recognition for Ellsbury this offseason. He is considered a leading candidate for the AL Most Valuable Player Award.
"I know what I'm capable of doing," Ellsbury said. "I know everybody has been surprised by the power numbers, but it's always been there. It just hasn't translated to the game. But every year, I've consistently gotten better. This is kind of what I was looking for last year."
Ellsbury put last year out of everyone's mind with a season that exceeded all expectations, except perhaps his own.
"I set goals every year," said Ellsbury. "No one has higher expectations than myself. I have personal goals."
While Ellsbury heard whispers about his toughness last year when he simply couldn't get his ribs healthy after a vicious collision with Adrian Beltre, he kept the sting to himself and made one statement after another on the field in 2011.
"It's pretty fun to see, especially after the frustration he felt last year," said Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. "He's played with a chip on his shoulder. There were strides made in 2009. Certainly there were concerns after missing the whole year last year. He picked up right where he left off and improved upon it. It's fun to watch.
"He wasn't happy with a lot of the stuff that was said [last season]. He's playing with a little bit of an attitude like, 'Hey, I'm going to prove a lot of people wrong.'"
The center fielder is 28 years old, which means he is just entering his prime years.
How did he transform his game from table setter to game changer?
"I think for me it's just being balanced and driving the ball," said Ellsbury. "A lot of times, I can use my legs to my disadvantage, just trying to put something in play. Now, I'm trying to get a pitch and lock into a location and really drive the ball."