ST. PETERSBURG -- The Red Sox have been a sum-of-their-parts team all season, picking each other up through injury and under-performance to form one cohesive unit. And while their signs of unity are everywhere -- look no further than their facial hair -- it was hard, amid the flying ice chips and champagne sprays, not to single out center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Division Series doesn't give out MVPs, but Ellsbury was a big reason these Red Sox are four wins away from reaching the World Series after Tuesday's series-clinching 3-1 victory over the Rays in Game 4.
"We have to have Jake to win, we understand that," Game 4 starter Jake Peavy said of Ellsbury, who hit .500 (9-for-18) with four stolen bases in the series. "He's plays such a primary position in center field, but what he brings offensively ... when he gets on base, he creates such havoc for the pitchers, and [Dustin Pedroia] and even David [Ortiz] get such good looks because you have to think about him on the bases. Jake's a huge part of this."
Ellsbury -- who suffered a right foot fracture that forced him out for nearly three weeks in September -- hasn't missed a beat since hurrying back to play in three of the team's final four regular season games. He scored seven runs with a pair of doubles and two RBIs in the Division Series. His nine postseason steals are a Red Sox record, and he tied the Major League record with a steal in four consecutive postseason games.
"He clearly showed that the foot wasn't ailing him in any way," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "When he's healthy and he's at the top of our lineup he creates a completely different dynamic than anyone else here. He's a threat on the basepaths and as a hitter. And we were fortunate that his injury wasn't more severe than it's been."
That trademark pesky speed was on full display against Rays reliever Jake McGee in the seventh inning. With the Red Sox down 1-0, Ellsbury sent a ball into right-center field to put runners on the corners. He then stole second on Joel Peralta, advancing to third on the resulting wild pitch, and scored the go-ahead run on Shane Victorino's infield single.
"It feels great," Ellsbury said of advancing to the ALCS. "We played a great team over there. It was a hard-fought game. It was mentally tiring more than anything. It's a fun group of guys."
And a much better one with Ellsbury at the top. Boston's leadoff hitter in every game he's started, including 134 in the regular season, Ellsbury had a league-leading 172 hits while batting first and led baseball with 52 stolen bases.
He is the heartbeat of this Red Sox lineup, getting things going even when their high-octane offense is shut down, like it was for much of Game 4. But, in a manner typical of this Boston team, Ellsbury didn't want the spotlight on himself, as much as the entire roster of the close-knit team.
"It takes the pressure off us," Ellsbury said of the clubhouse chemistry. "We come in, we have a good time and enjoy. But when it's time to play, we grind down and we're focused."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.