TORONTO -- On a day bookended by a knuckleballer and a knucklehead, Boston Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks hit three home runs and came just a few feet short of what would have been a historic fourth.
The first two home runs came off Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner who twice tried to sneak fastballs past Middlebrooks and failed both times, the balls landing in the seats under the closed roof of the Rogers Centre. The first one came in Boston’s first at-bat with Mike Napoli aboard and gave the Sox a 5-0 lead in the first. The second came leading off the fifth and made it 8-0.
In between, Middlebrooks whacked Dickey’s signature pitch into the left-field corner for a double in the third.
The knucklehead came in the ninth, after Middlebrooks had tied a club record with his third home run of the day, this one in the seventh off newly called-up reliever David Bush, who in the eighth also served up the first-pitch breaking ball that Middlebrooks lofted to the track in left, where it was hauled in by Melky Cabrera.
“I hit it too high," Middlebrooks said. “The pitch was about 65 miles an hour. Somebody must have turned the AC off for me. I thought it had a chance, just the way stuff flies here. I was blowing it running down the line, but didn’t have enough steam."
Middlebrooks had taken his position in the field in the ninth, waiting for Clayton Mortensen to tack on his second scoreless inning to the seven put up by Sox starter Jon Lester. That’s when a spectator of uncertain sobriety but undisputed stupidity lurched onto the field and, hand extended, approached the third baseman.
“He said he was happy to meet me and then he got tackled," Middlebrooks said. “He started to say something else and he got drilled."
Middlebrooks played quarterback under the Friday night lights of high school football in Texas, where a teammate was 49ers running back LaMichael James, so he knows something about the kind of gang tackle with which four security guards took down the intruder.
“They blindsided him," Middlebrooks said. “He had his hand out for me, and he got pretty close. I didn’t know if he was going to make it. I was trying to time it out of the corner of my eye, thinking ‘Am I going to have to shake this guy’s hand?’ But they got him."
The spectator was last seen being dragged out on his back through the outfield fence, a departure far more undignified-looking than the baseballs launched over the same fence six times by Sox hitters -- three for Middlebrooks, one each for Napoli, Daniel Nava and Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Sox had entered the game with two home runs in their first five games. Too bad there’s no power in that lineup.
“Great point," said Jonny Gomes, who sat this one out while Napoli served as DH but was part of the welcoming committee in the dugout after Middlebrooks fell short in his bid to become the 17th player in big-league history to hit four home runs in a game, and only the second third baseman, joining Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.
His teammates had played it straight most of the afternoon, Middlebrooks said, but not after his final at-bat.
“The last one," he said, “they were looking for the key to the weight room for me."
Middlebrooks had begun the season fighting a 102-degree fever and flu-like symptoms in New York, where he had two singles in 12 at-bats but just missed hitting a ball out to left-center in the second game. He hit his first home run of the season here Friday night, a line drive that just cleared the wall in left.
“It would have been a single in Fenway," he said. “I would have been just halfway down the line when it hit."
But after going hitless in three trips Saturday, when the Sox managed just two hits off Blue Jays lefty J.A. Happ and three relievers, Middlebrooks capped a first-inning rally in which the first five Sox hitters hit safely: Ellsbury double, Shane Victorino single, Dustin Pedroia single, Napoli double, Middlebrooks HR.
Middlebrooks had a fast start when called up last May, hitting three home runs and three doubles, and driving in nine runs, in his first four games.
“Everybody is going to point to the three home runs," manager John Farrell said, “but you look at the slow roller, and he also handled a couple of hot shots."
Middlebrooks made a highlight play when he barehanded a roller by Maicer Izturis in the fourth and threw Izturis out by a half-step.
“He’s an all-around player, a guy who profiles the position to a T," Farrell said. “He’s a very good athlete. It was interrupted a year ago by a broken wrist, but he’s clearly back with no restrictions."
A Sox player has hit three home runs in a game 26 times. The last before Middlebrooks was Pedroia, on June 24, 2010 in Colorado. Bill Mueller and Jim Tabor are the only other Sox third basemen to hit three in a game, and Middlebrooks became the youngest player to do so since another 24-year-old, Jim Rice, did it on Aug. 29, 1977 in Fenway against Oakland.
Gomes ticked off the gifted young stars he has played with in his career, Evan Longoria and David Price with the Rays, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs with the Reds, Yoenis Cespedes with the Athletics.
“I don’t really buy into the 'tools,'" Gomes said, employing the term talent evaluators assign a player’s skills. “Some of the best players I’ve ever seen never get out of A ball, five-tool players. And guys with zero tools succeed in the big leagues. So I don’t buy into that.
“I’m looking at work ethic, guys who know their role, how they play the game, how they approach the game, their desire to get better instead of, the game owes me something.
“Will has got everything pointing north."