FORT MYERS, Fla. — Easy to reflect back on the fun of 2013 when you win a World Series.
But Will Middlebrooks knows well the struggles of last season.
Demoted to the minors for six weeks last year, Middlebrooks returned to the Red Sox lineup at third base, only to be benched midway through the postseason in favor of mega-prospect Xander Bogaerts.
Now Middlebrooks, 25, is getting his chance to start at third again (with Bogaerts at short). He appears ready to go, batting .310 after Wednesday’s spring-training game against Pittsburgh.
“He’s looked more confident in the box,” Sox Manager John Farrell said, “and he’s put a number of good swings on some pitches.”
Middlebrooks is progressing. His up-and-down 2013 followed a 2012 season that featured him breaking into the majors earlier than expected and hitting .288.
But the stunning debut masked the fact that Middlebrooks was not a developed player. The struggles – and the lessons – followed.
“As many down points as there were for me, I can look back now and see positive notes, things I’ve learned,” Middlebrooks. “I’ve said it a thousand times: I learned a lot more last year hitting .230 than when I hit .290.”
And that’s the point: Middlebrooks is still learning.
When he was promoted to Boston in 2012 to fill in for the injured Kevin Youkilis, Middlebrooks had played only 40 Triple-A games – 16 of them in 2011 (after playing most of the year in Portland) and 24 in 2012.
Middlebrooks got hot and Youkilis was traded.
Middlebrooks looked great until he suffered a wrist fracture Aug. 10, giving him only three months of major league experience.
Pitchers began exploiting Middlebrooks’ weaknesses in 2013, including a tendency to swing at breaking balls out of the strike zone.
Through June 20, Middlebrooks was batting .192 with nine home runs, 60 strikeouts and nine walks. The Red Sox sent him to Pawtucket and Farrell indicated it was not for a short amount of time. Middlebrooks had to refine his swing. From the glory of 2012 to a return to a minors.
“You learn how to struggle. You learn how to pick yourself up,” Middlebrooks said.
When Middlebrooks came back Aug. 10, he batted .276 with eight homers, 38 strikeouts and 11 walks the rest of the year.
Middlebrooks batted only .231 in the American League division series, then .100 through four games of the American League Championship Series, when Bogaerts took over.
Naturally, Middlebrooks was not pleased with the move but understood.
“It’s a team game,” said Middlebrooks, who was often seen giving encouragement to Bogaerts or heard praising his play.
This offseason became interesting after shortstop Stephen Drew filed for free agency. If Boston signed him and kept Bogaerts at short, then what was Middlebrooks’ future with the Red Sox?
Instead, Boston went with its youth – Bogaerts at short and Middlebrooks at third.
When Farrell was asked this week about the possibility of playing two rookies this year in Bogaerts and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., Farrell added, if you include Will, who is still getting established at the big league level, you might suggest we have three guys.”
He’s experienced but still like a rookie.
“Just slowing things down, really,” Middlebrooks said. “I’ve been happy with my at-bats.”
The manager noticed.
“He’s laid off those borderline breaking balls a little bit more,” Farrell said.
And bit by bit, Middlebrooks is becoming consistent, ready to contribute and stay in the lineup.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at:[email protected]Twitter: ClearTheBases