It all came together for Ellsbury against the Yankees on Sunday night at Fenway Park in the bottom of the fifth inning, and he executed the difficult maneuver almost flawlessly, sending a jolt of raw excitement into the Red Sox's dugout, not to mention euphoric roars from the packed house of 38,154.
The steal was not manager Terry Francona's idea. It was not third-base coach DeMarlo Hale's brainstorm. This, quite simply, was pure instinct and aggression from the 25-year-old Ellsbury.
The bases were loaded with two outs and left-handed-hitting outfielder J.D. Drew at the plate. Third baseman Angel Berroa was playing off the bag. Pettitte was in the windup. So when the count got to 1-1, Ellsbury's lead kept expanding, to nearly halfway down the line. As Pettitte went into his motion, Ellsbury roared home. His headfirst dive beat Jorge Posada's tag.
"I joke around with DeMarlo all the time about how I can steal home, but when I saw Andy on in his windup on the previous pitch, I was thinking, 'I can make it,'" said Ellsbury. "It's just a matter of going at that point. Bases loaded, 2-1 ballgame -- the last thing you want to do is get thrown out at the plate."
To be sure, Ellsbury had to be safe. This was no time to run into an out.
"It could be one of the worst baserunning mistakes if you don't make it, but I was pretty confident I could get in there and make it, so that's why I went," said Ellsbury.
"What we have is a really fast player with some guts," said Francona.
Hale had his eyes on Pettitte when Ellsbury made his mad dash home.
"There's a lot of times the last few years when he's said, 'I can get it,' but the situation just didn't call for it," said Hale. "Tonight was a situation where it all came together -- where the pitcher was in the windup, the third baseman was off the bag, he was able to get a very big lead and it was a left-handed batter. And it was a strike. There were a lot of factors there. It was positive that he wasn't afraid to take the chance."
Fenway Park erupted with excitement as Ellsbury ran back to the dugout -- and for about a minute afterward. It was Ellsbury's 10th stolen base of the season and the 69th of his career.
Ellsbury's was the first steal of home by a Red Sox player since Jose Offerman did so on the front end of a double steal on Aug. 30, 1999, against the Royals. Jeff Frye stole home on June 4, 1999, against the Braves when Tom Glavine threw the ball high and wide to home plate with Darren Lewis batting on a suicide squeeze attempt.
The last time a Red Sox player had a pure steal of home such as the one pulled off by Ellsbury was Billy Hatcher on April 22, 1994.
It was the second time Pettitte has allowed a steal of home. Aaron Hill did it for the Blue Jays with the veteran lefty on the mound on May 29, 2007.
"Obviously, that's frustrating," Pettitte said. "Jorgie had just told me to watch him, and I was in the windup. I should have been in the stretch. I watched him out of the corner of my eye and just didn't think I needed to go to the stretch. I saw him take off and sped through my windup to kind of throw a ball in there. I thought we might have a chance to get him, but obviously he's extremely fast. He got in there."
Aside from Drew and Posada, nobody had a better view of the play than Jason Bay, the Boston left fielder who was in the on-deck circle.
"Obviously, it was the last thing you ever expected," said Bay. "All of a sudden, you have Ells, who flies, and he takes off and everything just kind of happened at once. I'm thinking, 'Geez, J.D., don't swing.' Boom, he kind of slid in. It's almost more electrifying than a grand slam."
Quite simply, the steal of home is -- at least in the fashion Ellsbury did it -- one of the rarest feats in baseball.
"I've never seen anyone attempt it, let alone somebody actually do it," said Bay. "That was actually one of the coolest things of the night for me, and I was on deck for that, so I got a really good view of it. That was something I won't forget."
As fast as Ellsbury is, it was the first time he has stolen home in a very long time.
"I did it when I was young, but I had never stolen home in a college game, in the Minor Leagues or obviously [in the Majors], so this was the first time," said Ellsbury.
Ellsbury was asked if the bases were 90 feet apart the last time he stole home.
"It was probably 60 feet," said Ellsbury.
It was a surreal sequence for Ellsbury. The only potential flaw to the whole thing was the slight stumble Ellsbury endured when he dove. But he had enough momentum to get in safely.
"Guys were fired up," Ellsbury said. "That usually happens when I steal second, but nothing like stealing home. It was pretty exciting for me when I was running down the line from third to home. Everything felt like it was happening in slow motion. That's probably another reason I tripped up a little bit -- I was fired up."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.