Saturday, May 18, 2013
Rare Middlebrooks bunt keys winning rally
By Ben Goessling, Special to ESPNBoston.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- Before Friday night, Will Middlebrooks hadn't attempted a sacrifice bunt since 2008, when he was a 19-year-old in his first season of professional baseball at Single-A Lowell.
But there the big third baseman was in the 10th inning at Target Field, putting a 1-0 slider down to move the go-ahead run to third base. Two batters later, Jonny Gomes lifted a sacrifice fly to center field that brought Dustin Pedroia home and staked the Red Sox to a 3-2 victory.
Jonny Gomes' sacrifice fly, which followed Will Middlebrooks' sacrifice bunt, gave the Red Sox reason to celebrate.
It was the kind of small-ball sequence employed more by the team the Red Sox beat -- the Minnesota Twins -- than a club whose sabermetric-loving, walks-and-homers ways have made them the antithesis of the Twins in recent years. But two months into the Red Sox's grand reinvention, Middlebrooks' bunt was emblematic of a team that's proving it can win in several ways.
"This is a smart team, in terms of guys knowing the game, how it's to be played, what situations call for," manager John Farrell said. "I think guys look beyond themselves when they're asked to execute, such as Will did tonight."
Boston improved to 7-4 in one-run games this season, after going 17-22 in such contests last year. In 2012, the Red Sox were 2-10 in extra innings. It took them all of four extra-inning contests in 2013 to surpass that win total.
On Friday night, they looked like they were heading toward another loss to a team that snatched three of four games from them earlier this month, but a walk and a pair of singles in the seventh inning tied the game.
And then, as Boston's pitchers were in the middle of retiring 17 straight Twins, Middlebrooks stepped to the plate with pinch runner Pedro Ciriaco on first and Pedroia on second.
He had little experience from which to draw -- only that sacrifice bunt in Lowell and the two or three bunts he estimates he attempts in batting practice each day. But Middlebrooks, who banged a three-run double to help the Red Sox win on Thursday night, knew the situation called for a subtler response on Friday.
"It's an ideal situation to bunt," he said. "My number was called, and I just tried to get the job done -- move those guys over so we can get the run in."
None of this is to suggest that the Red Sox are about to make a habit of inching runners along. They still rank third in the American League in slugging percentage, are second in walks and second in strikeouts.
But a team that had scored at least 800 runs in each of the previous 10 seasons stumbled to 69-93 in 2012 when it could only push 734 runs across the plate and its pitching staff crumbled. This year's club has both Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz -- who allowed two runs in seven innings on Friday night -- at the top of their games and has survived a rash of bullpen breakdowns. On Friday, Andrew Miller, Alex Wilson and Koji Uehara combined for three scoreless innings.
And, as Middlebrooks proved, these Red Sox have some versatility to them.
"We don't want to be the heart-attack kids, but it's a good character check for us, with [Buchholz] really bearing down and giving us a chance to win the ballgame," Gomes said. "Of course, the bullpen did great, and Will's bunt is huge. It says a lot about different ways you can win."