CHICAGO - Will Middlebrooks hit .297 with 16 RBIs in 18 games for the Red Sox when Kevin Youkilis was on the disabled list. The rookie third baseman also had 11 extra-base hits.
His playing time and production have dropped since Youkilis returned. But manager Bobby Valentine isn’t very concerned.
“His play has been OK,’’ said Valentine. “He’s faced some tough pitchers in and out of the lineup. Seems like he’s staying very competitive.’’
Middlebrooks has started 15 of 21 games since Youkilis returned. He is hitting .280 with six RBIs and two extra-base hits. Middlebrooks is 6 of 29 (.207) in nine games this month with one RBI.
“It’s a learning experience,’’ Middlebrooks said. “I want to be in the league, and this is the situation. Bobby is doing the best he can.’’
Middlebrooks has been an everyday player throughout his career, so coming off the bench or being skipped over on certain days takes some getting used to.
“You have to be strong-minded,’’ Valentine said “[Hitting coach Dave Magadan] is so good at the work he gives the guys. They do stay ready, as ready as you can.
“[Middlebrooks] is watching the game; he’s into the game. If I saw any elevated frustration level or any total decline in performance, I think we’d have to make another decision. But it doesn’t seem like we’re there.’’
Valentine talked to Middlebrooks when Youkilis came back, trying to lay out the parameters of the situation as best he could.
“I told him to fasten his seat belt,’’ the manager said. “That’s life in the big leagues, you’re in the fast lane, doing great.’’
Valentine said the 23-year-old Middlebrooks has matured enough as a player to stay in the majors, even if it costs him some playing time.
“If he was totally in the development stage of his career, it would be a slam dunk [to send him down],’’ said Valentine. “But because he’s over most of the development stage, he’s in the position that he’s in.’’
Market is cool
As Middlebrooks sees his playing time reduced, Youkilis is hitting .219 with a meager .674 OPS in the 19 games he has played since coming off the disabled list May 22.
If the Red Sox were hoping these games would be a showcase of his trade value, just the opposite has happened.
“The reality is there’s nothing going on,’’ general manager Ben Cherington said on WEEI. “We’ve talked to teams about several things. Yeah, teams have called to check in on Youk. That was a while back, right before he went out on his rehab assignment.
“Right now we’re just focused on getting Kevin going.’’
Youkilis has three hits in his last 30 at-bats and sat out Wednesday’s game against the Marlins with sore ribs.
Few familiar faces
The Red Sox will play their second-ever series at Wrigley Field starting Friday afternoon when Daisuke Matsuzaka faces Ryan Dempster.
The Sox lost two of three games to the Cubs at Wrigley June 10-12, 2005. Dempster, who got the save in the second game of that series, is the only player still on the Chicago roster.
Dempster is 1-1 with a 7.13 earned run average in four career appearances against the Red Sox, the last coming in 2005.
Matsuzaka has never faced the Cubs, and only four of their hitters have experience against him. David DeJesus is 4 of 9, Luis Valbuena 3 of 9, Reed Johnson 1 of 3, and Worcester native Bryan LaHair 1 of 3 against the righthander.
Matsuzaka will be making his second start of the season as he returns from Tommy John surgery. He went five innings and allowed four runs against the Nationals Saturday, striking out eight.
Bard’s work solid
Daniel Bard made his third appearance for Triple A Pawtucket Thursday. He pitched two innings against Buffalo, walking one and striking out four while giving up no hits . . . The Red Sox will open Fenway Park Sunday for the annual Father’s Day “Walk in the Park.’’ The park will be open free of charge from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fans can walk around the warning track, sit in the dugouts, and get autographs from Bill Monbouquette and Bob Montgomery.