Middlebrooks tightens grip on third base

Middlebrooks tightens grip on third base
March 15, 2014, 6:45 pm
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(AP Photo)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When spring training began, Will Middlebrooks' hold on a roster spot seemed tenuous.    

Coming off a season in which he regressed following a strong rookie year in 2012, Middlebrooks seemed assured of little, and there was a prevailing sentiment that the Sox could always re-sign free agent Stephen Drew, shift phenom Xander Bogaerts back to third and oust Middlebrooks from the infield picture.    

More than halfway through the Grapefruit League schedule, such a scenario seems highly unlikely. Middlebrooks has been scorching at the plate and more assured at third.    

Through nine games, Middlebrooks, who sat out Saturday's game with a hyper-extended right middle finger, was hitting .320 with a .600 slugging percentage while ranking third on the team in total bases.    

"I think he's having a very good camp,'' said manager John Farrell. "It's been very encouraging on the swings that he's taken. He's confident in the box, he's driving the ball. His work has been outstanding. I think he's in a pretty darned good place right now, overall.''    

For Middlebrooks, who battled both injuries and inconsistency last season, the adjustments have been as much mental as they have been physical.    

"I'm just recognizing what I do well and what I don't do well,'' summarized Middlebrooks, "and I'm not swinging at what I don't do well. That's it. Let's say a guy has a good sinker. He's going to throw that sinker and a lot of times it's going to be for effect. It's not going to be a strike. It's going to look like a strike and end up being off the plate. So you try to eliminate. Same with a guy with a good cutter -- he's not going to throw many of them for strikes. They're for swing and misses, his out pitch.    

"Knowing a guy's out pitch, how he gets guys out and just laying off them.''    

Middlebrooks blamed himself for being "overly aggressive'' at the plate last year.    

"There wasn't much of a thought process that went into my approach,'' said Middlebrooks. "I wasn't consistent with my approach. It was more or less going up there and trying to hit the ball hard. You can't do that at this level. You have to have a plan because a pitcher has a plan.''    

Middlebrooks suffered two indignities last season thanks to his inconsistent production. First, he got sent to Triple A for several months. Later, after earning his way back, he lost playing time to a 20-year-old Xander Bogaerts in the post-season.    

In retrospect, Middlebrooks accepts the fact that all players are going to struggle. The key is to not let the failure become debilitating.    

"Look at David (Ortiz),'' said Middlebrooks. "As great he is, he's had months where he didn't do well. That sucks, but it's part of the game. The pitchers are out there for a reason. You just have to stay as consistent as you can. Just being consistent with your plan and your confidence level.''    

Middlebrooks thanked Dustin Pedroia and other veterans for some off-season conversations that restored his faith in his own ability.    

"I've learned a lot to keep the 'snowball' from happening,'' said Middlebrooks. "When some of these (veteran) guys sit down and say, 'You're going to be fine..you're going to get stronger, get healthier this off-season. You're a good player.' It helps to hear that from some of the best in the game.''    

This spring, Middlebrooks has appeared more in control at the plate, and while he remains aggressive as a hitter, he's put himself in more hitter's counts.   

"I think last year, we saw some at-bats where he was pressing a little bit,'' said Farrell, "maybe trying to make up for some previous at-bats that would cause him to be a little over-aggressive or expand the strike zone. And with that willingness to swing (at anything), pitchers didn't really have to challenge him that much. He would chase some breaking balls off the plate. This spring, he's not offering on a borderline breaking ball, which is a really encouraging signs.    

"I think that speaks to his comfort and relaxation in the box right now.''    

According to Middlebrooks, he's been guilty of swinging at exactly one pitch out of the strike zone in his 26 plate appearances.   

"It was a slider I checked my swing on,'' said Middlebrooks, "and I ended up hitting a changeup in the gap for a double later in the at-bat. I'm not getting tricked up there. I'm seeing every pitch; I'm not guessing.''