The tell came on Thursday night.
Will Middlebrooks -- back in the lineup and at third base, two days after he'd sustained an injury when David Ross slid knees first into his ribs while chasing a foul ball, the collision of third baseman and catcher in turn plowing Middlebrooks into the low grandstand fence -- had walked, slowly, to the mound by John Lackey. A sprint to the mound by both a Red Sox team trainer and manager John Farrell ensued.
The third baseman had not wanted any medical attention, but at the same time, given the throbbing in the right side of his rib cage, the momentary pause in the game was not unwelcome.
"I just went to John [Lackey] and said, 'Hey, give me a second.' I couldn't catch my breath. I still can't. I take that deep breath and just, the swelling -- I don't know if it's in my lungs or just the muscles around it or it spasmed up," Middlebrooks recounted. "I just told John and said, 'Hey, let me have a sec.' He called them in and I was like, 'Ugh.' He said, 'I thought you were going to have a heart attack and just wanted to get them out there. Plus, it gives you a little extra time.' I just needed a sec. I'd just hit that double and I just couldn't catch my breath."
This injury represents a gut check for the 24-year-old. Multiple major league sources say that he did not suffer any fracture or crack to his ribs, but one industry source suggested that he is dealing with a separated rib -- a somewhat misleading term that refers not to the ribs themselves, but instead to tearing of the rib bone from the cartilage that connects it to the sternum.
For Middlebrooks, the precise diagnosis is less important than the prognosis -- chiefly, that it is an injury that he can play through so long as he can grit his teeth and bear it. All the same, it's one of the more painful injuries that he's ever played with, whether in his baseball career or his time as a highly regarded high school quarterback in Texarkana.
"This one doesn't sound like much, but this really hurts," he said, when asked to recall the most painful injury he's played through. "This one's up there. It really affects me -- when I swing, when I throw, it's on my right side. This is up there."
The ongoing discomfort remained evident on Friday night, in the Red Sox' 5-0 victory. Middlebrooks constantly stretched his right side while on the field, trying to do anything he can to keep loose and to fend off that tightness that led the training staff to visit him on the field on Thursday.
It is an injury for which it would be forgivable for Middlebrooks to say he needed more recovery time. Indeed, the Sox were concerned enough that such an outcome would prove necessary that they had infielder Brock Holt part ways with Triple-A Pawtucket and fly up from Gwinnett (where the PawSox were playing this week) to Boston as a precaution in case Middlebrooks needed to go on the DL. (When it became clear that the third baseman would not require a stint on the DL, Holt rejoined the PawSox, for whom he played third base in Charlotte last night.)
But that was an outcome that the 24-year-old did not consider -- despite the fact that he's been mired in easily the worst slump of his still-brief big league career, and indeed one that compares to even some of the depths of his most significant slumps early in his minor league career.
If given the opportunity to play, Middlebrooks would -- and will -- take it. Despite his struggles of much of the last month, he's confident in his abilities, convinced that he can contribute while injured and find his way back to productivity.
"I hate to sit out games. I want to be there for my teammates," said Middlebrooks. "I want to be a guy they know they can depend on. I felt like that's something I can play through and deal with. I knew it was going to hurt, but I just wanted to be out there to be there for my teammates and do whatever I could to help us win."
He did so on Friday. He had an RBI groundout (granted, it could have been a double play grounder but Maicer Izturis' throw on the front end of the potential twin killing was wide of second base) and delivered a pair of doubles (one to left against right-hander Ramon Ortiz, another to right against left-handed reliever Brett Cecil) in four plate appearances. It was the first time since April 7 that he'd collected a pair of extra-base hits in the same game.
Did he feel pain on the doubles?
"They hurt really good. I like 'em," he grinned. "It felt good, man. I felt like I had three good at-bats where I stuck with my approach and it's been a while since I've taken almost every at-bat up there and stuck with my approach, so I'm happy with that."
In his two games since returning from his injury, Middlebrooks now has three doubles in eight at-bats and he hasn't struck out -- the first time all year that he's gone consecutive games without a whiff. Over a broader period, he's starting to show signs of coming around at the plate. In his last 14 games, Middlebrooks is hitting .265/.308/.429 with five doubles and a homer -- not exactly Mike Schmidt in his prime, but a notable departure from the depths of his April struggles, and enough to push the young third baseman's average back over the Mendoza line to .203.
Middlebrooks also got plenty of action at third base behind Jon Lester, whose nasty cutter against a predominantly right-handed Blue Jays lineup kept Middlebrooks and shortstop Stephen Drew in a constant state of activity. The third baseman had seven assists and caught a liner and pop-up as part of his busy day.
"I love it when Jon's pitching. I love it. I know I'm going to get a lot of balls with that cutter. They're going to throw righties up there, not many lefties are going to hit against him," said Middlebrooks. "I tell him every time -- I'm ready for you. Throw them in there. I like the challenge. I've got confidence in myself. I can't control what anyone else does, but I know what I can do. I know I can make the play."
That confidence on the part of Middlebrooks -- in the face of his offensive woes and injury -- underscores why the Sox have no hesitancy about continuing their commitment to the sophomore. They've seen him overcome horrific slumps and adversity in the minor league level, and both the team and player remain convinced that he can find his way now.
"I've faced it," Middlebrooks said of his experience with struggles in the minors. "You've just got to take it head on. You can't shy away, you can't change anything. That's what I try to do -- try not to change anything, still be a good teammate like I'm hitting .400. I feel like that shows the guys a lot and builds a lot of respect."