SAN FRANCISCO — After a series of roster moves on Monday left the Red Sox without a backup second baseman, manager John Farrell told reporters that third baseman Will Middlebrooks could handle the job if needed.
That news didn’t make its way to Middlebrooks until the middle of the seventh inning Wednesday afternoon when Farrell told him to go play second so Dustin Pedroia could get a breather.
The Red Sox, on their way to a 12-1 victory against the Giants, weren’t too worried what might happen. But Middlebrooks was a bit surprised when Farrell held up two fingers and motioned him to second.
“We hadn’t talked about it. I thought I misunderstood him,” Middlebrooks said.
Middlebrooks was tested right away. With a runner on first base, Hunter Pence grounded to shortstop. Stephen Drew flipped to Middlebrooks and he fluidly turned a double play.
“I haven’t turned a double play up the middle since I was 18 in Texarkana, Texas. It’s been a while,” said Middlebrooks, who played shortstop in high school and third base once he signed with the Sox but never so much as an inning at second.
That Middlebrooks was standing in a big league clubhouse and laughing about a temporary position shift was proof of how quickly a player’s fortunes can change.
The 24-year-old was demoted to Triple A Pawtucket June 25 after his batting average dropped to .192 and strikeouts were piling up. The promise he showed as a rookie last season had given way to frustration after losing his job to Jose Iglesias.
Middlebrooks stayed in the minors for seven weeks, learning to be more patient at the plate while gaining a better appreciation for the work he needed to do to succeed.
“Humbling,” he said. “I realized I had a lot to learn about a lot of things.”
Iglesias was traded to the Tigers July 30, but the Sox used backups Brock Holt and Brandon Snyder at third base, so intent were they to make their point to Middlebrooks.
Middlebrooks returned to the Sox Aug. 10. He is 15 of 34 (.441) since with three doubles, two home runs, and seven RBIs. He has struck out only seven times while drawing six walks.
On a team desperate for production from the right side, Middlebrooks could be a significant player down the stretch. On Wednesday, his two-run homer off Barry Zito in the second inning gave the Sox a lead they never lost.
“I’m just more comfortable,” Middlebrooks said. “Everyone wants to say I changed my approach. I didn’t really change my approach; I’m just more consistent with it.
“You get confidence when you get results. Unfortunately that’s just how it is. I’m just trusting myself again.”
There have been some subtle mechanical adjustments, too.
In the box he’s a little more squared up in his stance,” Farrell said. “It has allowed him to stay through the middle of the field and have plate coverage to the outside part of the plate.
“Before he went down, in addition to pressing a little bit, he might been pulling off some pitches. He’s back to where he was last year.”
Jonny Gomes had a two-run single in the third inning that gave the Sox a 5-1 lead. Drew’s three-run homer in the seventh inning, a shot to right field off Mike Kickham, wrapped the game up.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino were 6 for 9 at the top of the order with three runs.
The Sox took two of three from the Giants, their first series win after dropping three in a row. With the Rays losing, the Sox are back in first place in the American League East by a game.
Red Sox starter Felix Doubront (9-6) went eight innings, giving up one run on five hits and one walk. He struck out three.
After allowing nine earned runs on 14 hits over only eight innings in his previous two starts, it was a significant improvement.
“Keeping the ball down. That’s what I was thinking about the last four days, throw the ball down,” Doubront said. “Keep the hitter off balance and go with my stuff.”
After allowing a home run by Joaquin Arias in the second inning, Doubront allowed only three hits in the six innings that followed. The eight innings matched his high for the season.
“I was working fast and throwing strikes. Making the hitters swing the bat,” said Doubront, who threw a career-high 114 pitches.
Doubront didn’t notice Middlebrooks playing second base, which speaks to how well he handled the ground ball he snapped up in the ninth.
The Sox are comfortable with Middlebrooks there in a pinch, for several reasons. He has played on the right side of the diamond on certain defensive shifts, so the angles aren’t unfamiliar to him. He also has the athletic ability to make the plays needed.
“Felt he was the logical choice,” Farrell said. “For the three innings, he did it flawlessly.”
Middlebrooks isn’t taking too much time to analyze the twists of his season. With the Sox in a pennant race with 33 games to play, that can wait.
“Here I am, man,” Middlebrooks said. “I wasn’t myself before and that was tough to swallow. It’s nice to be able to come up and contribute.”