How can the Red Sox not play Will Middlebrooks at third base every day? The rookie from Texas has given them almost no choice after a memorable performance on Thursday night.
Middlebrooks drove in four runs, two with the tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, as the Red Sox rallied to beat the Miami Marlins, 6-5.
That’s five straight wins for the Sox and victories in seven of their last eight games.
Those who carved out a space in the humid air at Fenway Park saw one of the best games of the season as the Sox scored three runs in the eighth to sweep the series.
“It feels awesome,’’ Middlebrooks said.
The inning started when Jarrod Saltalamacchia doubled off the wall in left-center, knocking Miami reliever Randy Choate out of the game. The 23-year-old Middlebrooks, who earlier had a pair of RBI singles, was next.
Edward Mujica threw four consecutive split-finger fastballs. Middlebrooks took the first for a strike, swung and missed at the second, and let the third go by, the pitch just missing the outside corner of the plate.
“The guy had a good split-finger, I was just trying to fight him off so I could get a good fastball to hit,’’ Middlebrooks said.
After Middlebrooks fouled off the fourth splitter, Mujica did turn to his fastball. The first was well outside but the second was up and over the plate. Middlebrooks drove it several rows into the bleachers in center for his eighth home run.
“Taking those outside pitches, they were tough pitches coming in there,’’ Sox manager Bobby Valentine said. “Once he saw them early and swung at them, he recognized them later and took them.
“That’s when you’re going good. When you’re not going good, you keep chasing and you walk back to the dugout. He’s a confident young guy. He doesn’t get discouraged when he swings and misses.’’
The Sox weren’t done. Another impressive young player, 24-year-old Ryan Kalish, singled to right field. Valentine called for a hit-and-run and Mike Aviles hit a ground ball to the right side.
Kalish rounded second and went to third, sliding under the tag. His aggressive play paid off when Daniel Nava singled to center off Mujica, driving in the go-ahead run.
The rally made a winner out of Scott Atchison, who threw two scoreless innings in relief. Alfredo Aceves worked a perfect ninth inning for his 18th save.
Daisuke Matsuzaka started and pitched into the sixth inning, allowing four runs.
Middlebrooks is 6 of 8 with two home runs and eight RBIs in his last four games. He is hitting .316 on the season with a .903 OPS and has driven in 31 runs in 38 games.
“It’s about consistency, really,’’ Middlebrooks said. “They teach it in the minor leagues. But to get here and see these guys, it shows me what it really is. I’m just trying to be more like them.’’
The production has come despite occasional games on the bench to accommodate playing time for veteran Kevin Youkilis.
Middlebrooks was called up to fill in while Youkilis was on the disabled list. Finding room in the lineup for two third basemen has become a daily challenge for Valentine. Middlebrooks has been the odd man out, starting only seven of the last 12 games.
“It seems like he’s doing just fine like this. He’s keeping sharp. He’s watching, he’s learning, and when he’s in there it doesn’t look like he’s missing a beat, obviously,’’ Valentine said.
But Valentine also acknowledged that Middlebrooks has earned the right to play more by playing so well.
“I think that’s a fact of the game that we play,’’ he said.
Youkilis is hitting .225 in 41 games with a .670 OPS and 13 RBIs. The Sox have increased their efforts to trade him in recent days, according to baseball sources, and are willing to absorb much of the $6.89 million remaining on his contract to make a deal happen.
“At some point, Will is going to be an everyday player,’’ Aviles said. “I don’t know when that will be. But he’s showing he can do it. He’s playing like he’s been here for years and years. That’s not a skill a lot of young players possess. It shows you what kind of player and person he is.’’
Middlebrooks is the first Sox rookie to hit a tying or go-ahead home run in the eighth inning or later since Shea Hillenbrand in 2001.
“It was pretty cool,’’ he said. “That was a fun night.’’
The lineup card for Friday night’s game against Atlanta will be highly anticipated. With Middlebrooks, Nava, and Kalish playing leading roles, the Sox are starting to look like a team that may not hover around .500 all season after all.
“I think this is the kind of baseball this team can play, this group that we have right now,’’ Valentine said “There are guys who can steal a base, take an extra base, and play pretty good defense. They’re making things happen.’’