August 17, 2013

On Baseball: Middlebrooks works on chasing the doubts

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BOSTON - Let's talk about the third baseman at Fenway Park Friday night.

No, not that one.

Will Middlebrooks has worked himself back into the good graces of the Boston Red Sox. Now Middlebrooks is in a phase that Portland Sea Dogs fans have seen before -- he is being treated with care.

The Red Sox are batting Middlebrooks ninth -- a strange spot for a power-hitting third baseman. But it lessens the pressure on Middlebrooks.

"He looks more relaxed," Red Sox Manager John Farrell said in his pregame press conference Friday.

Middlebrooks went 1 for 2 Friday night in Boston's 10-3 loss to the Yankees and is batting .400 (8 for 20) since his return from the purgatory known as Triple-A.

Relaxing is a key component for Middlebrooks. In his opening months this season, "there was a tendency to try to make up for some previous at-bats," Farrell said.

"That's not the case (now). He's playing a little more free of mind."

The Red Sox have always been mindful of Middlebrooks, not putting too much pressure on him. Drafted out of high school in 2007, Middlebrooks did not grab instant attention. His average climbed every year in the lower levels -- .254, .265, .276 -- as did his OPS (on-base plus slugging average) -- .666, .753, .770.

When he came to Portland to begin the 2011 season, there was hope but no great expectations.

It should be noted where Middlebrooks batted in the lineup early in his Sea Dogs season -- seventh.

The organization was keeping the pressure off Middlebrooks even then.

Here's an excerpt from a story we did on Middlebrooks in May 2011. 

But Middlebrooks, for a while, cared too much, took struggles too personally. He would wonder what was wrong and search for a fix. He wouldn't throw a bat, but he would churn inside."

"I'm my biggest critic," Middlebrooks said. 

In that story, Middlebrooks talked about the challenges in coping with failure -- something he rarely experienced in high school.

Fast forward to 2012 and Middlebrooks was one of the bright spots of a dismal Red Sox season -- called up in May and taking Kevin Youkilis' job. He batted .288 with 15 home runs in 75 games before fracturing his wrist on Aug. 10.

Expectations soared at the start of this season. With injured David Ortiz on the disabled list, Middlebrooks batted fifth, behind Mike Napoli, in the season opener.

He homered three times in an April 7 game in Toronto and arrived for the first game at Fenway with a .320 average.

From April 7 to June 21, though, Middlebrooks batted .174 with three home runs. He didn't cope with the failure. He lost his confidence, his job (to Jose Iglesias), and eventually his spot on the roster.

"To get sent back down, for him, was a reality check," Pawtucket Manager Gary DiSarcina said earlier this week. "This is a performance-based business. If you're not performing at the big league level, you're not going to play. You're going to come down here and work things out."

Middlebrooks did that, reuniting with hitting coach Dave Joppie (his hitting coach in Portland in 2011). His improvement was slow, but Middlebrooks turned it on in August, batting .333 in eight games.

"He made a couple of adjustments with Joppie. Squaring up more toward home plate," DiSarcina said. "I've never seen him so excited in my life He's up late at night at 2 a.m. working on it in his hotel room. The consistency started to come."

Farrell hinted that Middlebrooks could eventually move up in the lineup. Napoli is slumping. A steady right-handed bat is needed.

Middlebrooks was groomed in Portland in 2011. He enjoyed instant success in Boston in 2012. He struggled for half of 2013.

And now? Middlebrooks looks ready to bloom again, shutting out the doubt and turning on the talent.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: ClearTheBases

 

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