FORT MYERS, Fla. — As the games finally begin, there’s no one with a bigger point to prove or bigger chip on his shoulder than Will Middlebrooks.
He made that perfectly clear Thursday, before taking the field as the starting third baseman against Northeastern, batting seventh.
“Night and day,” Middlebrooks told WEEI.com of his feeling this spring compared to 12 months ago. “It’s night and day. It’s just a matter of competing and believing in my own ability and knowing what I’m capable of and just going out and not thinking about the details and just going out to kick a guy’s ass every day.”
It’s not just the extra 15 to 20 pounds of muscle he’s put on during a vigorous offseason workout program. Middlebrooks has shown his manager that he’s mentally ready to put 2013 behind him.
“To date, his spring has been productive,” Farrell said. “His work has been outstanding. He’s come in with a noticeable determination and yet, at the same time, he’s doing everything we could’ve expected, in terms of everybody.”
“It’s evident by the work he did in the offseason to add some strength and I’m looking forward to seeing him playing on the field.”
As Alex Speier documented, 2013 was a nightmare for Middlebrooks, hitting just .227 in 94 games and suffering through a lower back strain that landed him on the disabled list. It got so bad early on that he was demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket for 45 games where he worked to get his swing – and head – right before returning to help the Red Sox down the stretch. All of this after a rookie season in 2012, when he hit 15 homers and drove in 54 runs in 75 games.
“You could point to a number of examples where the second year has been a little bit more challenging and that’s just a matter of the league getting to know the strengths and limitations for a given player, and pitching to it accordingly,” Farrell said. “Will’s very well aware of how pitchers and opponents have attacked him, and that’s just a process of establishing yourself year after year in the big leagues.”
Farrell reminded everyone this week why the Red Sox aren’t about to give up on Middlebrooks as an everyday third baseman.
“He’s got well above average right-handed power,” Farrell said. “We all know that. And even though there’s been some challenges along the way or stretches of where things have been challenging for him, you still look at a guy who has over 30 home runs in  at-bats, the extra-base power is clearly there.”
Not everything was a waste from 2013.
“We won a World Series,” Middlebrooks said. “I think the biggest thing for me is being healthy, on top of other things. I feel good. I left last year with a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t like last how it ended personally.”
In 39 starts at third base after returning to Boston, Middlebrooks batted .276 with eight homers. The improvement was finally happening.
“I was having better at-bats,” he said.
What was the key?
“The veterans that are here, I feel like they’re the best in baseball,” Middlebrooks said of the likes of Dustin Pedroia, Jonny Gomes and David Ortiz. “There’s so much experience and success. Right next to me, I can just turn to him and ask him whatever I want. That knowledge is there and that experience is there, and there’s no substitute for that.
“It helped a ton, a ton. Between Pedey and Jonny and David, it was an everyday event. It’s a constant learning process.”
As for the bigger, stronger Middlebrooks, he hopes that translates to much improved results and more games played.
“I feel like the stronger you are, the best base you can build [the better],” Middlebrooks said. “It’s a long season, it’s a grind of a season. You’re going to lose weight. A lot of guys lose weight and lose a little bit of strength and I know that’s going to happen to a certain extent. I’m just trying to create a good system for myself to use during the season and maybe stay where I’m at.
“I’m coming in here like I’m trying to win a job. I want to win the trust and I want to be reliable to my teammates and the coaching staff and I want to gain again in me.”