KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Will Middlebrooks will likely always remember this day. It could be the first day of the rest of his baseball career. It could be his rebirth as a major league player.
It had better be.
Middlebrooks’s second chance started Saturday night, batting ninth for the Red Sox. It’s a long way from where the Sox had projected him when the season started. He and Mike Napoli were supposed to be the two righthanded power hitters in the middle of the order. Instead, Middlebrooks, who whacked 15 homers and knocked in 54 runs while hitting .288 in 75 games during a wildly impressive rookie campaign, spiraled into a sophomore jinx he couldn’t spin his way out of.
Middlebrooks couldn’t have asked for a much better night in the Red Sox’ 5-3 victory. Middlebrooks had a two-run single in the fourth and an infield hit in the sixth. Both times he scored on a Jacoby Ellsbury double.
“It felt good. I just wanted to come contribute and help us win in some way,’’ he said. “The first hit was a relief. Really just that first at-bat. After that first at-bat [a flyout to left], I was comfortable and I was seeing the ball well.
“[Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie] actually made a good pitch on the hit I got to right, got in on me and I just happened to squib it over the first baseman’s head.”
He’s had two stints in Pawtucket, the last one a seven-week stay during which he watched while infielders Brock Holt and Brandon Snyder were summoned. It was tough to watch. The Sox had made it crystal clear that he was staying down awhile.
This was not a quick fix. Middlebrooks had to show consistency. He had to show he could handle adversity. He had to show that he was that can’t-miss guy who once upon a time scouts would say, “Boy, the ball sure sounds different coming off his bat.”
But Middlebrooks didn’t feel very special after being demoted. Something had been lost.
Maybe he was a big leaguer in his own mind before he was truly a big leaguer.
A second chance. Yes, Middlebrooks can again show he is what he was last season — a stud in the making. And if these last few weeks, where he’s been humbled, contribute to that, then great. One thing for sure, the Sox need his righthanded power at third base.
He said he took the following out of his Triple A stint: “Oh man, just not to take all this for granted because you can lose it really quick. I just take it day by day. I’m going to have fun.”
He said he needed both a mental and physical makeover.
“Little bit of both. I don’t want to say ‘play safe.’ But you’re always looking out for yourself and your career and that can hold you back. Pretty bad habits. It feels good just to be able to go out and play and not think about it,” he explained.
Middlebrooks admits “the first couple of weeks were tough. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t see the big-picture things. I just saw the right now and that was being sent down. I lost my job. I didn’t want to be here. I got over that. With [Pawtucket manager Gary DiSarcina] and [hitting coach Dave] Joppie down there, those are guys that have been [working] with me from the bottom up. It was a really good foundation for me to get my feet back under me and get back to the basics and start having fun again.”
He claims he didn’t take his career for granted, yet it looked like that from a afar.
“I didn’t think I did,’’ said Middlebrooks, who batted .192 with a .228 on-base percentage and .389 slugging percentage in 53 games with the Red Sox this season. “As you look back, there’s some things you may have done differently. I don’t know if I fully took it for granted, I just appreciate it a lot more.’’
Middlebrooks realized he may have gotten caught up in the big league life and maybe he just didn’t know how to handle it.
“I feel blessed where I’m at. It’s been a long road. I’m happy to be where I am, especially in this organization. I think as a young guy in this market you can be caught up in a lot of the off-field stuff. A little bit of everything just snowballed on me. I didn’t have blinders on like I normally do and just play baseball. I was worried about this and that. You can’t do that and perform at this high level,” he said.
It took a while to get going. At Pawtucket, his numbers weren’t off the charts (.268, 10 homers, 35 RBIs, 25 runs, and 16 walks in 45 games). But he became more comfortable at the plate and according to Red Sox manager John Farrell they began to notice more consistency in his swing.
“Things started clicking for me,” said Middlebrooks. “Feeling comfortable with some minor adjustments. Nothing too huge, not a big deal. Something that worked for me. Have all my direction going to the middle of the field. It’s keeping me through the ball a little better.”
He learned of his promotion when he got back to his hotel room Friday night.
“I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t know when it was going to happen. I stopped thinking maybe it would be today, maybe it would be in a week. I was just playing baseball,” he said.
Middlebrooks was fortunate. The Red Sox skipped over Xander Bogaerts, their top prospect. Bogaerts will continue to play some shortstop and third base, just in case Middlebrooks can’t bounce back.
“I want to have blinders on again and just play baseball,” Middlebrooks said.
What the Red Sox want is to regain their righthanded power, get Middlebrooks and Napoli being forces again. That’s the way the Red Sox had drawn it up in February.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.