DETROIT — Just by looking at his body language and demeanor you can tell that Will Middlebrooks, at the very least, is a bit uneasy.
For the second straight night he was out of the Red Sox lineup on Saturday. And it was understandable because Max Scherzer, a tough righthander who is 10-0, was pitching for the Tigers. And when you’re already hitting .192, why take another 0 for 4 and dip the average even lower?
That’s probably why manager John Farrell kept him out. Maybe Middlebrooks wants everything to get back to normal where he’s hitting fifth and clobbering home runs, which is what the Red Sox thought they had after a fruitful rookie season before he injured his wrist, but that’s not what has transpired.
Except for one very memorable day on April 7 when he clubbed three homers against the Blue Jays, not much has gone right.
There have been more injuries, to his wrist, back, and ribs. The Red Sox are concerned. When he did his rehab for a rib injury in late May, Farrell thought Middlebrooks might stay in the minors beyond his rehab assignment just to get his swing back. But the Red Sox wound up rushing that along. Middlebrooks ended his rehab and rejoined the Red Sox June 10 on their Tampa Bay/Baltimore trip.
Middlebrooks continued to struggle, going 4 for 29 since returning, including 0 for 4 Thursday in the opener of the series in Detroit.
Under most circumstances Middlebrooks would be sent to Pawtucket to work things out, to ease the pressure he’s putting on himself.
But the Red Sox have been stubborn in keeping him up. Part of that is that there’s been no replacement per se, until the team discovered Jose Iglesias could play third base at a high level, and hit as well. Middlebrooks has been part of a three-headed competition on the left side of the infield with Iglesias and Stephen Drew. Iglesias entered Saturday night hitting .431 and playing out of his mind.
“We talk a lot of different things, Ben [Cherington] and myself others, we went from if Iglesias stays how many days a week can he play and maintain his development and now we’re flipping that with Will. If it comes a point where he’s not getting enough reps that may wind up being the discussion but nothing is imminent right now,” Farrell said.
The Washington Nationals just made this decision with second baseman Danny Espinosa, who went on a rehab assignment, but stayed in the minors when it ended because he simply wasn’t hitting, he’s still a young player, and he has options. There’s no shame in sending a young player who is struggling back to the minors.
Something with Middlebrooks just isn’t right. There’s a lot of frustration going on.
Before Saturday night’s game, he worked hard with infield coach Brian Butterfield on ground balls. He works very hard on his defense and his hitting. Some of his at-bats have been very good where he’s hit the ball hard at someone.
“There’s nothing different going on,” Middlebrooks said. “Normally when I have an off day, I do two or three times more work before and after the game. I’ve just had a few more days like that lately.”
Is he frustrated, down in the dumps, angry at not playing?
“Anyone in here wants to play every day,” Middlebrooks said. “I’m a competitor. I want to compete. Do I understand the circumstances? I do. [Iglesias is] playing his [butt] off. He’s a good player. He deserves every bit of the playing time he’s getting right now. I’m more disappointed in myself. I didn’t take advantage of the opportunities I’ve had.”
We know what Middlebrooks is. He was the Sox’ righthanded power hope, a guy who made a different sound with the bat than anyone else in batting practice because he was so quick and so powerful. What’s happened? Is he not making adjustments? Is he overmatched?
“No, I’m not overmatched,” he insisted. “Just have to create more breaks for myself. I’m not going to make the excuse that ‘Oh, they’re just not falling in.’ I can play better and that’s what I’m going to do.”
As for the injuries taking their toll, Middlebrooks says abruptly, “No, I’m not hurting,” he said.
Have the Red Sox coaches or Farrell tried to boost his spirits?
“I’m not a kid. They don’t have to pep me up,’’ he said. “I understand it. Just come here and go to work every day and earn that back. I can’t sit and pout about it and get [ticked] off. They’re just doing their job. They want to win and they want to put the best players out there. I respect that. That’s what I’m here for, too.”
When he went down to Pawtucket for rehab, it provided an incentive to turn this around quickly.
“Nobody wants to go back down. You work your [butt] off all your life to make it here and once you get here you don’t want to leave,” he said.
A kid like Middlebrooks hasn’t had to deal with a lot of adversity in his life or in his career. He’s always been the best of the best. Now, as a major leaguer, the adversity is here. He’s dealing with it.
“It’s always good for anybody to experience some adversity at every level,” he said. “I’ve had plenty of it, but not like this at this level. Every guy here has had some of it. When I went up to Triple A late in the 2011 season, I hit like .160 in 16 games. I don’t remember what I felt like, but I know in this case it’s not being overmatched. I’m hitting it at people so that part is out of my control. I have to work hard every day and not let it get me down.”
But of course he’s down. He’s a young player who took the league by storm, who is now wondering what’s happening to him.
“It’s just a rough patch right now. It isn’t forever,” he said.
It just feels like it.