ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Will Middlebrooks is ready to go.
It's still three hours before the Red Sox will take on the Rays Wednesday night, but all the talk of what lies ahead -- for both the series finale and the coming months -- has the third baseman restless.
"Dude, you're getting me fired up now," he said in mid-interview.
The talk of what had taken place to date has set off Middlebrooks, the 24-year-old who came into the season considered a middle-of-the-order stalwart. It is part excitement, part frustration.
He seems genuinely surprised that the recent development of having to contend with Jose Iglesias for playing time might be considered the elixir for his struggles. Competition, he explained, wasn't the reason he found himself playing well enough to make Kevin Youkilis expendable a season ago, and isn't what will pull his batting average.
"Yeah, everyone has different buttons to push. I'm just a competitive person when it comes down to it. It doesn't matter if it's for a job. I feel like I kind of got away from that," Middlebrooks said. "I don't know if I got complacent, I wouldn't call it that. But I just kind of lost that edge for a little bit. I don't know if it was because I was dealing with injuries and thinking about that stuff, and just not locked into, 'I'm going to kick that guy's ass' every pitch. That's who I am. That's who I've always been. Pitch by pitch, you're not going to beat me this pitch. And if you do, I'm going to get your ass next pitch. That's it. Move on. I got away from that mentality."
As Middlebrooks speaks, it's easy to buy what he's selling.
It's easy to understand that his own internal fire -- the one he said had been inexplicably doused -- is what is now steering him, not the presence of Iglesias. It's what is driving up his blood pressure with each word, and why he felt obligated to write the word "compete" on the inside of his glove.
It's not like he needs a reminder, but after what transpired earlier in the season, Middlebrooks is leaving nothing to chance.
"I lost that little spark, that fire, coming in and being pissed for no other reason than they're trying to beat me today. I'm getting that back," he said. "I went 1-for-7 the other day, and I felt [expletive] good because I left the game knowing I was competing. I had that little fire back in me and it's starting to get going again. Does that mean I'm going to go on a streak of hitting .500 the next two weeks? Probably not, because that's hard to do. But those completive juices are back flowing. I cleared my head, and I'm getting healthy again."
Middlebrooks has only played in two games since coming back from the 15-day disabled list, but he clearly has used those two games as his springboard to fixing what he felt had been broken.
Perhaps is was the time away from the lineup, or maybe it was getting the chance to observe and reflect while not having results define each day. But he can now admit, and identify, the differences in his approach and his demeanor. It was the kind of self-evaluation that had been percolating with each passing game.
"I knew it," Middlebrooks said. "I'd sit here after games, be frustrated, beating the crap out of myself about it because I knew it. I would come in here after every game and think about the game. When I'm done with the game, after I come in, I'll spend about five, 10 minutes … I'll come in here and be in my uniform. I just come in, I think about the game and what went on, and when I get up, I'm done with it. That way I can move on to the next day. That's my time, when I come in and evaluate what I did, what I could do different, what they tried to do to me.
"I think I lost the confidence. I was struggling. I'd struggled, but never really on this stage, dealing with stuff in my body. I just kind of got down and it sucked. It was frustrating. Snowball effect."
And if there is any doubt about the mindset, the reminder on the inside of his glove serves as a fail-safe.
"That's who I am. When I'm at my best, I'm just competing and I'm going to kick somebody's ass," Middlebrooks said. "I'm not worried about Joe [expletive] the barber in the stands, the umpire calling stuff a couple of inches off the plate. ... I'm not even worried about my approach. I'm just seeing the ball and trying to beat his ass. He's trying to beat me. It's as simple as that."
But even with the rekindled mindset, there are some realities facing Middlebrooks.
He is still battling through a rib injury and lower-back strain. Even before going on the disabled list with the back issue, the rib problem was a constant reminder that his obstacles would be coming from more than just the opposing pitcher, or even the the acceptance of an unfamiliar approach.
Just prior to heading to the DL, Middlebrooks was starting to see some results. While winning and offering incremental contributions during his hitting struggles offered some solace, rediscovering his offensive prowess helped reignite that aforementioned "spark" he had misplaced.
Then, however, the body started trumping the mind.
"I feel a lot better than I did the past month, month and a half. So, I don't want to go on the DL," he said. "I hate sitting out. If I'm 75 percent, I feel like I can help us win, and I'm not going to get any better sitting on the bench. I'm not going to dig myself out of a hole sitting on the bench. I'm not going to kick [the opponent's] ass sitting on the bench. I can flick seeds on him. That's about it."
Then there is the assumption that the hot hand will be getting the playing time, a notion that has been brought into the equation thanks to Iglesias' recent performance. The Red Sox are 17-7 in games Iglesias has played, with the newbie third baseman hitting .449 with a 1.071 OPS.
Red Sox manager John Farrell has stated that shortstop Stephen Drew's playing time most likely won't be cut into more than a game or two a week, even with an offensive performance that has the shortstop hitting .223 with a .703 OPS. Drew's defensive consistency, and track record, has bought the veteran perhaps a bit more time than Middlebrooks.
The whole dynamic is OK with Middlebrooks, who reiterated regarding the presence of Iglesias, "I'm never competing with my teammates. We're together and we're trying to kick their ass. I'm not trying to kick his ass. He's doing his job. Good. Because we're trying to win."
It's hard to argue the third baseman's approach. Even during his offensive struggles he has won, with the Red Sox totaling a 72-51 record in games he has played in. But at the same time, there will continue to be that focus on those numbers (.196 batting average, .622 OPS) and expectations.
No matter what the playing time, or playing rotation, he clearly is ready to dive head-first into the rest of the season, armed with the edge he once misplaced.
"I like it," Middlebrooks said of the expectations. "I don't want people to say, 'He might struggle.' I'm good. I'm [expletive] good. I'm a good player. Do I have developing to do and growing to do? Yes, of course. When you stop getting better, you need to quit. Was this a hard two months for me to swallow? Yeah, man. I hate letting my teammates down. There's plenty of times I could have won the game for us and I didn't. Is that going to change? You bet your ass. … I just want to win. That's it. I just want to win, somehow."