FORT MYERS, Fla. — Will Middlebrooks. Aptly named. Always in the middle of things. Sometimes through no fault of his own.
When Bobby Valentine first went off the rails in the train wreck of 2012, it started with a remark blurted to Middlebrooks. Something along the lines of, “Nice inning, Will,’’ after the kid had a bad time of it at third base. Middlebrooks never complained, but it became a Fenway firestorm.
The “tangled up in red, white, and blue” play in last year’s World Series game in St. Louis? Whose legs created the obstruction for Allen Craig? Will Middlebrooks’s, of course.
Over this past baseball winter, when Sox fans debated the merits of bringing back shortstop Stephen Drew, Middlebrooks was the guy caught in the middle. It was clear that Xander Bogaerts was going to play every day in 2014. Bogaerts could play shortstop, but if Drew returned to the Sox, he would move to third and Middlebrooks would be traded or optioned to Pawtucket.
Middlebrooks’s career was treated as the casual part of the permutation.
Oh, and when Jenny Dell was taken off the air as NESN’s sideline reporter? Well, Middlebrooks was in the middle of that one, too. Dell and Middlebrooks were an item (privately) for most of last season and made their relationship public in a New Year’s tweet.
The revelation resulted in a career detour for the popular and talented sideline reporter. Dell still works for NESN, but no longer covers the Sox. She was in the stands at JetBlue Park when Middlebrooks hit his fourth homer of the spring Wednesday against the Orioles.
It has been a great spring for Middlebrooks. While the Drew signing never materialized and Grady Sizemore stepped in and won the center field job in a competition with Jackie Bradley Jr., Middlebrooks enjoyed the best camp of any Sox hitter. After singling in Friday’s 4-0 win over the Twins, Middlebrooks is hitting .367 with a team-high 4 homers (tied with Mike Napoli) homers and 9 RBIs.
Know-it-all Bill James submits that Middlebrooks this year will hit 32 homers with 104 RBIs, which would be a big leap from 2013, when he hit .227, lost his starting position, and wound up playing 45 games in Pawtucket.
“This spring I feel locked in every time I step on the field,’’ said Middlebrooks, who arrived at spring training Feb. 1. “It all started to make a little more sense and I’ve been seeing the ball real well.
“I dug myself in a hole last year and I was trying to get two hits every at-bat. This game’s hard enough when you’re just focused and trying to do too much.’’
The trip to the minors?
“Tough,’’ he said. “It tested me. Probably the worst couple of months of my baseball career. But I learned so much.’’
Over the winter, he heard the noise about Drew coming back. And about Bogaerts moving to third.
“It was tough to think about, so I tried not to,’’ said Middlebrooks. “I knew regardless I was going to be playing somewhere.
“But I love playing here. I had no interest in reading about it. I had blinders on and just wanted to get going and show the coaches I was in the right place.’’
Middlebrooks’s relationship with Dell was kept under wraps during the stressful 2013 season. Getting things out in the open cost Dell her sideline job, but it has made life easier for the couple.
“It was a relief for it to come out and let everyone know,’’ said Middlebrooks. “It really was. I haven’t talked a whole lot about it. It’s my personal life. It was a relief in this offseason to get it out there.’’
Any guilt about Dell losing her sideline gig?
“I feel bad, it’s her career,’’ said Middlebrooks. “But she’s really good at what she does and she’ll be fine. If she’s happy and working in an environment where she’s enjoying her job, that’s what’s important.’’
Bound for Pawtucket
Jackie Bradley Jr., Drake Britton, and Ryan Lavarnway were optioned to Pawtucket, reducing the roster to 30. Five more players need to be lopped off, and after beating the Twins, manager John Farrell said the Sox still had to talk to a few players. Those expected to be cut are pitchers Tommy Layne, Brayan Villarreal, and Francisco Cordero, outfielder Corey Brown, and infielder Mike McCoy . . . Felix Doubront after his five shutout innings Friday: “That was my goal, to finish strong. I wanted to start fresh and just work hard. I needed to have more success in this last start.’’ Farrell said, “He used his cutter more than he has all spring. He had consistent power. It was a good way to finish camp.’’ . . . Hammond Stadium has undergone a nice face lift, but no spring baseball facility should be strapped with the word “stadium.’’ . . . The Sox fly to Baltimore Saturday night after wrapping up their spring training schedule with the finale of the Mayor’s Cup series. Friday’s victory gives the Sox a 3-2 lead and clinches possession of the coveted trophy for another season.