There was a time in the 2013 season when it seemed as if Will Middlebrooks might be squeezed out of relevance. The 24-year-old struggled in the big leagues, both with his health and approach.
Meanwhile, when Middlebrooks landed on the DL, Jose Iglesias went on an epic tear to displace him as the Red Sox' everyday third baseman. Middlebrooks hardly set the world on fire in Pawtucket (hitting .268 with a .327 OBP and .464 slugging mark). Xander Bogaerts did. The walls seemed like they might be closing on the 2007 fifth-rounder.
But Middlebrooks didn't see it that way. Even as he struggled, he remained confident that his impressive 2012 rookie season would not be a one-and-done contribution at the big league level with the Red Sox. He remained steadfast that he would again have a chance to impact the 2013 team.
"I wasn't raking. I was hitting .260 or .270. But I just felt better," Middlebrooks said of his mindset in Pawtucket as he recovered from both the separated rib and lower back issues that had plagued him in the early months of the season. "The biggest thing to me was my health. I feel like that's what set me back the most. Once I was hurt, I was getting in bad habits with my swing, my fundamentals, my mechanics, trying to overcompensate for things. Once I started feeling healthy and I was able to play baseball and not worry about things hurting, that's when I felt like things were starting to turn around and I didn't doubt that I'd be back."
He is, in more ways than one.
Middlebrooks delivered what he characterized as one of the biggest three hits of his career in the fifth inning on Tuesday night, a two-out, two-run single on a first-pitch slider from Cy Young frontrunner Max Scherzer to give the Red Sox just enough offense to claim a 2-1 victory over the Tigers. The third baseman suggested that only his game-winning two-run double off Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney in the top of the ninth earlier this year and a game-tying, eighth-inning home run last year against the Marlins (en route to a comeback win in June) could compare to the significance of Tuesday's hit.
This, after all, was Middlebrooks delivering in a pennant race, performing under the glare of a September spotlight against a team that is wrestling with the Sox for possession of the best record in the American league. This hit came against a pitcher who has been among the most dominant in the AL all year, against someone who had struck out Middlebrooks in each of the first four matchups between the two.
"It means more than you guys know," Middlebrooks revealed. "I'm more excited than I'm showing."
That excitement no doubt reflected not just the circumstances of his hit and the stage on which it took place but also the process that went into it. Middlebrooks likes to look dead red early in at-bats, ambushing early-count fastballs he can drive. But in this instance, he was mindful that Scherzer was mindful of his tendencies, resulting in a pattern of sliders to open his at-bats.
Indeed, in the first at-bat between the two on Tuesday night, Scherzer doubled up on sliders (a ball and a called strike) to open the confrontation, then blew a fastball past Middlebrooks for a swinging strike and finished him with a fastball on the inside corner for a called third strike.
And so, with the Sox mounting their first meaningful threat against Scherzer (a pitcher who had held righties to a .154/.209/.274 line in 2013 entering Tuesday) in the fifth, Middlebrooks adjusted, and whacked an elevated first-pitch slider into center for the game-winning, two-run single.
"Normally I go up there, look for a heater," said Middlebrooks. "But in that situation, guys in scoring position, I figured he'd throw the off-speed, I looked for it and I got it."
He not only got the pitch he was looking for, but he stayed within his up-the-middle approach to line the hit up for a single past former teammate Iglesias. Earlier in the year, Middlebrooks might have proven overeager and come out of his shoes trying to hit the breaking ball onto Lansdowne Street. Not so on Tuesday.
As such, the at-bat served as a marker of progress, at a time when Middlebrooks had been struggling (in nine games entering Tuesday, he was 5-for-28 with one walk, nine strikeouts, no extra-base hits and no RBIs). This was an approach, Middlebrooks suggested, that he would not have been able to execute earlier in 2013.
"I would have still looked for a heater. I would have stuck with my regular approach, and I probably would have taken that pitch for a strike," said Middlebrooks. "That's what it's about -- not game-to-game [adjustments] but at-bat to at-bat. If I'm getting beat with a fastball in, I'm not going to wait until the next day to go, 'Oh, this team is going to pitch me in.' I'm going into the next at-bat expecting that. Sometimes your approach has to change a little bit. The situation dictates that. The pitcher dictates that. You just have to be able to adapt within an at-bat sometimes.
"It's nice to get some results," he added. "I grinded through a couple months of changes in things, trying to get everything right back where it was. To finally get comfortable again and see some results, it's huge. It builds your confidence back up."
And so now, the Sox once again have a player who appears primed to contribute in Middlebrooks. In his 21 games since returning to the Sox, he's now hitting .323 with a .400 OBP and .462 slugging mark. He's shown a more selective approach, walking eight times in that span -- nearly matching the nine times he walked in his first 53 contests.
His resurgence has been well-timed -- just as were, in a way, his early-season struggles. Middlebrooks' injuries and performance hiccup came with some considerable upside for the Sox.
The emergence of Iglesias -- as a fill-in at third while Middlebrooks was injured, then after earning the right to remain at the position while Middlebrooks struggled -- proved transformative. Iglesias' excellence at the plate and in the field played a major role in the Sox' sustained success throughout the early stages of the summer.
Meanwhile, his ability to excel for a time as an everyday player in the big leagues -- instead of floundering in the minors, where questions of effort and ability emerged after the shortstop hit just .202 with a .262 OBP and .319 slugging mark -- turned the Cuban into a valuable trade chip.
Last offseason or early in the year while he was in the minors, Iglesias might have represented a secondary or third piece in a deal for one of the biggest fish on the trade market. Because Middlebrooks struggled, opening the door for Iglesias to show that he could respond positively to the major league setting, the Sox were able to sell high and deal Iglesias (along with three lower-levels minor league chips) as their primary chip in a three-way deal to land Jake Peavy.
And so, the Sox' outlook has improved considerably thanks to the byproducts of Middlebrooks' struggles. They received a great performance from his replacement, and at a time when it appeared that Iglesias was tailing off (and was in danger of losing his job as the team's third baseman in the short-term, with an ever-decreasing likelihood that he might hold Bogaerts at bay as the team's shortstop in 2014), they were still able to capture considerable long-term value by dealing him for a starter.
With the benefit of hindsight -- and the perspective afforded by a return to an everyday big league role -- Middlebrooks can understand and appreciate the notion that there were collateral benefits to his adversity.
"That hot streak he had up here, that could have made his career -- it set him up for a lot of things and a lot of possibilities," noted Middlebrooks. "Shortstops are hard to get, especially shortstops who can hit .300. You know he's going to pick it. You know he's going to be a game-changer. We've already seen that plenty of times this year, even with us at third. He's just that good with his glove. If he can even hit .280, that's awesome -- that's hard to have.
"Iggy's been my teammate for a couple of years. People don't believe me, but I was happy for him [when he displaced Middlebrooks at third]. He worked hard and he deserved it, and I was happy for him. That whole situation was nobody's fault but my own. I couldn't be jealous. I couldn't be mad at him. All I could do was worry about getting better and getting back."
And now, seemingly, he has come through on the other side. The Tigers have their shortstop, with Iglesias back in Fenway playing the position where he feels most at home.
"Short is my position," Iglesias said on Tuesday. "It is more comfortable, just to know where you're going to be definitely."
The Red Sox, meanwhile, have both their third baseman and starting pitcher.
"It worked out for everyone," said Middlebrooks.
For the Sox, once again, the timing couldn't appear to be much better for that to prove true.