Commentary

It's Will Middlebrooks' job now

Trade of Kevin Youkilis clears way for hot-hitting Red Sox rookie

Updated: June 26, 2012, 10:10 AM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Prior to the start of the seventh inning between the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays on Monday night at Fenway Park, the video board in center field showed a highlight of the first at-bat in a Chicago White Sox uniform for Kevin Youkilis.

Even though Youkilis is no longer a member of the Red Sox, he's still a fan favorite in Boston and people here started to chant "Yoooouk" while they watched him ground out to shortstop against the Twins in Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeWill Middlebrooks
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesIn his first inning as the everyday third baseman, Will Middlebrooks committed an error -- and heard about it from some Fenway fans.

There are several reasons why the Red Sox decided to trade Youkilis, but the biggest was the emergence of rookie Will Middlebrooks. The 23-year-old infielder has been considered the future third baseman in Boston for some time and, with Youkilis' trade to the White Sox on Sunday, he can now be considered the full-time employee at the hot corner.

The pressure is on.

Middlebrooks knows how much the fans adore Youkilis. If, for some reason, he didn't, Middlebrooks learned it first-hand when he committed an error in the top of the first inning and some fans issued their displeasure with a combination of "booo" and "Yooouk."

To those who participated or shared the sentiment, give the kid a break. Middlebrooks has the potential to be a special player for a long time in Boston.

Middlebrooks said he was content with the role he played while Youkilis was still in Boston. And manager Bobby Valentine tried his best to keep both players sharp and in the lineup as often as possible, even if it meant putting slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in right field at times.

Now there's no question who the third baseman will be on a daily basis for the Red Sox, and knowing he'll be in the lineup will help Middlebrooks' preparation.

"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "If you wake up every day and you know you're playing today, it's comforting, for sure. If you can come in and have more of an idea who's playing every day, it kind of slows things down for everyone."

Middlebrooks doesn't plan to change his routine just because the job is his now.

"I've put that on myself the whole time I've been here," he said. "I want to do well and help us out. I feel like I've been trying to do that the last two months. I'm settling in now."

Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona had a favorite line anytime someone would ask him about a hot prospect. His response would always be, "Let's not put the kid in the Hall of Fame just yet."

Valentine has been extremely impressed by Middlebrooks, but the skipper offered up a similar answer when asked about the rookie being named American League player of the week.

"A lot of people do it one time," Valentine said. "No, that's what they always say when someone hits a home run; they'll go over to them and say, 'Anyone can hit one in a game.' It's a nice honor. He had a great week."

Middlebrooks said he was surprised when told of the award.

"It's an honor, for sure," he said. "I was just happy I could get some hits and help us win some games. But at the same time, it's only one week so hopefully I can keep it going."

Baseball is built on failure and every player will have an oh-fer game many times during the course of his career.

Before Monday's rain delay with two outs in the top of the seventh inning and the Blue Jays leading 9-5, Middlebrooks was 0-for-3. When play resumed nearly two hours later, he rifled a double off the wall in left-center for a double.

"No extra pressure," he said. "It's the same as every other at-bat. I'm just trying to fight off good pitches and get something good to hit."

Middlebrooks has only 11 oh-fer games this season and has hits in 31 of 42 games and 13 multihit games, which is a major reason why he entered Monday's game with a .326 average and 34 RBIs.

Baseball operations staffs from around the majors have been impressed with Middlebrooks' ability even before the Red Sox selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. He was a hot commodity at the trade deadline last July, but the Red Sox deemed him untouchable because they knew the kind of player he could be.

Middlebrooks said the degree of the Red Sox' commitment to him is a huge compliment.

"It's definitely a confidence builder and it feels good. I'm happy to be here," he said.

He's proving it just like Youkilis did when he first made his major league debut in 2004.

Youkilis got an incredible reception from his Red Sox teammates and fans when he was pulled for a pinch-runner after hitting a triple in the seventh inning on Sunday.

Middlebrooks was in awe of the situation.

"It was awesome. The send-off for him was perfect," Middlebrooks said. "It couldn't have happened to a better person."

The changing of the guard became complete Monday night. Middlebrooks is ready.

"I've learned a lot from him and hopefully it'll all pay off and I can help us win," he said.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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