PAWTUCKET, R.I. — When he was optioned to Triple A Pawtucket last month, Will Middlebrooks didn’t want to make himself feel better about it.
He didn’t want to tell himself it was temporary when he knew it was indefinite. He didn’t want to coat the bitter pill with sugar.
“In your own mind, you’re like, I lost my job,” he said. “Because I did.”
He saw the writing on the wall. No matter how hard he swung, his average dived. Back and rib issues landed him on the disabled list in May, and when he returned in June his status in the lineup was on-again, off-again, mostly because his replacement, Jose Iglesias, was playing so well it was becoming impossible for manager John Farrell to keep Iglesias out of the lineup.
“When it happens, that’s hard to swallow,” Middlebrooks said. “I pretty much had a feeling it was coming, especially with Iggy doing so well. And I need to play. I don’t want to sit on the bench and just watch every day. I’m not going to get any better there. If anything, I’m going to get worse.”
That didn’t make the demotion any easier to accept. PawSox manager Gary DiSarcina was familiar with the feeling. He had seen plenty of players go through it. He had gone through it himself.
“It takes them two or three days to get over the shock of being here, and then they get into the grind of the minor leagues,” DiSarcina said. “He’s taking buses. He’s getting in at 4 in the morning. It’s tough.
“It’s an adjustment. One of the things I’ve seen from him is he’s been humbled.”
As he sat in the home dugout hours before the PawSox faced the Rochester Red Wings Thursday night, Middlebrooks seemed to have gone through all the emotional stages.
“I saw a frustrated Will, a humbled Will, and now he’s adjusting to being one of the guys down here,” DiSarcina said. “He’s here. He’s not going anywhere.”
Acceptance was the important part.
“I’m here,” Middlebrooks said. “If I sit here and pout about it and be a bad teammate, I’m going to stay here. I’ve just got to control what I can and work hard and get back to the little things.”
Last year, when the Sox called up Middlebrooks barely a month into the season and then traded mainstay Kevin Youkilis June 24, there was a feeling that he had been handed the baton. After hitting .288 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs in 75 games, Middlebrooks came into this season with a sense of security.
“I had over a year under my belt,” Middlebrooks said. “Not statistically or in games played but as far as time up there and I felt like I was finally part of the team. Then, things happen.”
He hit .192 over his first 53 games this season. He struck out in 30 percent of his at-bats. And the more he tried to will his way out of the slump, the more he seemed to sink deeper.
“There were times where I got too big and you try to get 10 hits in one at-bat or try to hit a five-run homer with nobody on,” Middlebrooks said. “It’s tough, man.”
He learned how quickly the ups and downs can come.
“It was really tough to get optioned because you worked so hard to get there to that point,” Middlebrooks said. “You kind of lose it like that.”
DiSarcina was Middlebrooks’s first professional manager in Single A Lowell, and Middlebrooks knew that once he got to Pawtucket, DiSarcina would be ready to greet him with heavy doses of reality.
“In Will’s mind, he’s established,” DiSarcina said. “He had one good month here. He got called up. He had two or three great months in the big leagues. He got hurt. If you ask an evaluator how long until someone is established in the big leagues, they’re going to say three years. If you get three, four, five years, now you’re established. That’s part of that humbling process that Will went through.
“You take a step back, and what has he really done? He’s had three good months. There’s been a boatload of players that have had three good months. I know it’s hard for him to hear.”
The goal now is to retrace the steps that got Middlebrooks to the majors. When they decided to send him down, Farrell and Sox general manager Ben Cherington reassured Middlebrooks that he was their third baseman of the future. Their conversations centered less on mechanics and more on clearing his head.
“Honestly, they didn’t say, ‘Do this, do that,’ ” Middlebrooks said. “I’m just working on my focus, man. What they said was we want you to just be yourself again — in whatever way that is. They didn’t say, work on hitting the ball to right or work on hitting the ball to left or whatever. It was nothing like that. It was just be yourself again because you’re frustrated, you’re getting down about it. You’re just not yourself.”
Middlebrooks said the most important step was tuning out all white noise.
As he slid deeper into his hitting funk in the majors, he found himself checking Twitter, drowning in the constant stream of criticism.
He made it a point to rid himself of as many distractions as possible.
“I feel relaxed now and I feel like when I get my opportunity to go back, my mind-set’s different,” Middlebrooks said. “I feel like I just have blinders on now, to be honest. I’m not worried about stuff going on over [on the outside]. I don’t tweet anymore. I don’t care. That’s not important to me. I had a lot going on, but I just tried to quiet my life down. I had a lot of noise and I just tried to simplify everything. The more simple everything is, the easier it is, I guess.
“Not that Twitter or things like that were a problem because it never was a problem. But it’s just something I can [cross] of the list. I don’t have to read about, ‘Oh, so-and-so thinks I’m terrible.’ Well, yeah I agree right now. But it’s just not good for you to read. You want to be positive, especially when you’re in a hole like that. You don’t want to read stuff like that. I wanted to get rid of some distractions and just simplify everything. “
In 21 games with Pawtucket, Middlebrooks is hitting .256 with six homers and 22 RBIs. He’s had white-hot flashes like his 4-for-5, two-homer, eight-RBI night against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre July 3, and there are patches of black ice like the 0-for-17 stretch he ended Thursday night.
But he has struck out just 13 times in 82 at-bats, showing more discipline at the plate.
“He’s done a good job of controlling his strike zone here,” DiSarcina said. “He’s been able to hit with two strikes. He’s been rolling over a lot of balls lately instead of driving the ball to that right-center-field gap, which we all know is his strength. He can hit the ball a long way to right-center field. He just needs to be more consistent with it.
“It’s not about being 4 for 4 with four cheap hits. It’s about being 1 for 4 with three hard ground balls to second, a line drive here. It’s a process.”
Middlebrooks still has to tell himself to be patient. Since he was sent down, he’s seen shortstop Jonathan Diaz and utility infielder Brock Holt get called up, and the natural instinct is to wonder why he wasn’t promoted instead.
“I know it’s hard for him to come here, have that ‘When am I going to get called up?’ feeling or ‘Why didn’t I get called up? Why did Jonny Diaz get called up?’ ” DiSarcina said. “He came in and asked me that. I said, ‘You don’t play shortstop, Will.’ He didn’t want to hear that. But he wants to know why he’s not there. That’s the No. 1 answer. You don’t play shortstop — and don’t worry about Jonny Diaz. Worry about you. He’s an important person to this organization, an important player in this organization, and I think, in the end, this is going to be the best thing for him.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.