Despite rough end to year, Middlebrooks confident
Making his first postseason appearance, third baseman an X factor for Sox
BOSTON -- Which Will Middlebrooks will show up on Friday in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at 3 p.m. ET on TBS? The 24-year-old who hit .138 with a .259 slugging percentage while striking out 18 times in his final 15 games to end the regular season? Or the still highly-regarded Red Sox third baseman of the future who, after being recalled from Triple-A on Aug. 10, hit a ninth-inning homer off Mariano Rivera and posted a .368/.434/.621 over the next month?
"He's shown the ability to be streaky, and when he's in those upticks, it really lengthens our lineup," manager John Farrell said of the right-handed-hitting Middlebrooks, who will get every opportunity in the first two games of the ALDS to prove his worth. "He's got the ability to drive the ball out of the ballpark in all fields, and when he's in that, our lineup is deep. It's powerful. ... Since coming back this second time this season, he's had a little bit of ups and downs. But again, I think we're more aware of what we're going to get from him.
"I will tell you that going up against left-handed starters, we're going to need him."
And a red-hot Tampa Bay team, which has survived three consecutive win-or-go-home games on the road, is full of them. The plucky Rays will send lefty Matt Moore to the mound Friday, with ace southpaw David Price slated for Game 2 on Saturday. Middlebrooks, who is 0-for-2 against Moore and 2-for-7 with a double against Price, will get his first taste of the postseason and a clean slate to prove he can be a contributor on baseball's biggest stage.
"Let me tell you, he's a young, talented player that this organization is going to need for years," David Ortiz said. "All we've got to do is just build up his confidence."
Ortiz, along with Dustin Pedroia and several other veterans in Boston's clubhouse, have taken Middlebrooks under their wing, reminding the youngster in tough stretches that it's happened to them many times and it will get better. Baseball players are a superstitious breed, and Middlebrooks has used the Red Sox's long layoff this week to stay in his routine, resisting the urge to tinker with his swing, take hours of extra work, or allow his dismal final few weeks to creep into his October psyche.
"It's a humbling game to all of us," said Middlebrooks, who posted a .288/.325/.509 line in 75 games as a rookie last season and was demoted to Triple-A for two months this year. "When its good, it's not going to last. When it's bad, it's not going to last. You just got to not ride the roller coaster and try to stay as even-keeled as you can.
"You have a couple big games in the playoffs, help them get an extra out or get to the World Series, that can erase a lot of things, that can change a lot of people's opinions. I'm not playing to change people's opinions, I'm here to win ballgames. You can go 0-for-4 and make three web gems and help win the game for the team. It's about doing the little things and the big things will follow."
Middlebrooks will be on the biggest stage of his career, a place where baseball's legends are created and mistakes magnified. He will lean on the advice of teammates, many of whom have been in the playoffs before, and stick to the same preparation he learned this season. Jonny Gomes has been instrumental in that routine, helping teach Middlebrooks how to devise a plan against opposing pitchers.
Gomes, who believes the Red Sox's "X-factor" can be anyone on any given night, stressed the importance of wiping the slate clean during Thursday's workout, and arguably no one in Boston's clubhouse is happier about that than Middlebrooks.
"The Rays may have played yesterday, but you look up on the board tomorrow and it's zeros all the way," Gomes said. "And it's hero to zero, and zero to hero real fast. That's why the best team doesn't win, the hottest team wins."
Getting Middlebrooks hot could go a long way in helping Boston's hopes of a deep postseason run.
"This is where it matters," Middlebrooks said. "It's where it matters and counts. It's about winning. It's not about [individual] numbers, not about stats. But if that's what it means to help us win, so be it."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.