Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Thursday, June 21, 2012
Sox upstarts band together

By Joe McDonald
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- The talk around town on Friday will be the current five-game winning streak by the Boston Red Sox, and how the trio of Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Kalish and Daniel Nava were a major factor why Boston produced a 6-5 come-from-behind victory over the Miami Marlins Thursday night at Fenway Park.

But the three career minor leaguers were all making plans for a late night dinner with a close friend who was in from out of town before they answered any questions about Middlebrooks' 3-for-4, four-RBI performance -- capped by the game-tying two-run homer in the eighth inning -- or Nava's game-winning hit that drove in Kalish.

Middlebrooks, Nava
Daniel Nava, right, high-fives Will Middlebrooks.

All three have an inspirational story of their own and how they got to majors.

Middlebrooks, 23, is one of the top prospects in the organization and represents the future at third base for the Red Sox. He was called up in early May when veteran Kevin Youkilis suffered a back injury. Middlebrooks has produced both offensively and defensively and will likely never see the minors again.

Kalish, 24, was on the fast track to becoming an every-day player in the big leagues when he debuted in 2010, only to miss the majority of the 2011 season due to injuries that ultimately led to shoulder and neck surgery.

Then there's the 29-year-old Nava. He was playing independent baseball when the Red Sox signed him as a minor league free agent in 2008. He has played a total of 95 games for the Red Sox -- 60 in 2010 and 35 this season -- and every time he has been called up on an emergency basis he has produced.

All three are close. Like every other minor leaguer in the Red Sox system, they are inspired by one another's backgrounds and root for one another.

"It's awesome," Middlebrooks said. "When we got called up here we wanted to gain their trust and let them know we can come through and help them win, so it's good to see it happen."

Middlebrooks has had many big hits this season, but he admitted Thursday's two-run blast was the best so far.

"Yeah, for sure. I think so," he said. "It keeps the winning streak going and gives us some momentum."

During the Sox's current winning streak, Middlebrooks is 7-for-12 with a double, two home runs, nine RBIs and three runs scored.

Nava went 2-for-4 on Thursday and is batting .439 (18-for-41) in 14 games this month, including six multi-hit games. He's also batting .361 (13-for-36) in nine leadoff starts this season.

"I'm not amazed, I'm inspired by it," Kalish said of Nava's contributions. "It's pretty unbelievable. I've played with Nava and he's an unbelievable hitter and he's been that ever since the day he started playing. He went through a rough year [in 2011] and I think his persistence is what inspires me. He didn't even get invited to big league camp this year and it's an unbelievable story and I'm just happy to be playing beside him."

Kalish, who was finally promoted from Triple-A Pawtucket prior to last Sunday's game in Chicago, has already made contributions both offensively and defensively.

These career minor leaguers have added a youthful spark to the Red Sox at an important time.

"It's awesome," Kalish said. "They've been here for a while and they've been doing it since the day they got here. As young guys that's what you want to do, you want to bring fire and you want to spark people and I think, so far, we're doing that."

Earlier in the day, veteran slugger David Ortiz criticized the local media for creating too much drama around the team. He asked that the players be left alone and allowed to produce on the field. It was an odd and unusual exchange with the team leader, and if the other veterans around the team feel the same way, which they all probably do, that's not the sense from those players who have been called up from the minors this season.

Nava and Kalish were having a discussion recently about his neck surgery and how serious the situation was at the time (Kalish has the scar to prove it). Kalish battled his way through rehab and spent more time in Fort Myers, Fla., than he would have liked to. More importantly, he pushed himself to get healthy.

Once he was cleared for baseball activities, he quickly made his presence felt in the minors.

Will Middlebrooks
Will Middlebrooks said Thursday's game-tying homer was his best so far.

"You never know with something that serious," Nava said after Thursday's win. "We got to talking and I told him tonight, 'Man, you look great up there, just relax and have some fun. You're going to come up with a shot to do something big.' He's fought through a lot, a lot of injuries."

That "something big" Nava mentioned presented itself in the bottom of the eighth inning after Middlebrooks crushed the two-run homer to tie the game at 5-5. Kalish reached on a base hit and then went first-to-third on a hit-and-run groundout by teammate Mike Aviles.

That hustle proved crucial when Nava stepped into the box. Since there were no outs, Miami had its infield playing in on the grass. He was able to push a broken-bat single into shallow center field and Kalish scored easily for the game-winning run.

There's a natural competition between all players at every level throughout a professional organization, especially in baseball. Every minor leaguer wants to play in the big leagues, and the inspired ones will do whatever it takes to get there and stay there.

At some point soon outfielders Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ryan Sweeney will all be healthy and ready to play. That means Nava and Kalish could find themselves back in the minors, or perhaps even traded if the Red Sox believe they can get something significant in return at the trade deadline.

"I've been aware of it since I got called up," Nava said. "I know it's a reality and it was a reality the last time I got called up. It's anything I can do to help the team get back to where we're hanging in and got a shot then those guys come back, who knows where it's going to go. I'm aware of it and I think anyone who gets called up and doesn't have a big contract it's a reality."

While Middlebrooks, Nava and Kalish are all inspired by one another, that close friend they were getting together with after Thursday's win was Red Sox minor leaguer Ryan Westmoreland.

Westmoreland, who was drafted by the Red Sox in 2008, underwent life-threatening surgery on March 16, 2010, to remove a cavernous malformation on his brain stem.

The surgery, while a success, created neurological deficits and affected his 6-foot-2, 220-pound athletic body. He had to relearn simple, every-day tasks. His family and doctors were more concerned with his quality of life than a potential return to baseball.

Westmoreland used his love for the game as motivation, not only to live a normal life but also to excel on the field again. He continues to rehab at the Sox's spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., and remains close with Kalish, Nava and Middlebrooks.

"It's unbelievable to see a guy like that not complain -- ever," Kalish said. "I've caught myself, when I was rehabbing in Florida, complaining around him just about what I've been through, what I'm going through and then I almost check myself, like I can't believe I just said that in front of that guy. He doesn't ever complain. He just enjoys life. For him, I don't know what's going to happen with the rest of it, but I know from where he was to where he is now is just unbelievable. I've never heard him complain about anything. He just continues to do it and to me that's inspiring."

Nava agrees.

"If there's ever some inspiration it's right there," Nava said. "That guy's got no quit. It's unbelievable. He's a fighter. If there ever was an example, that's the guy you look to because that guy doesn't quit."

While Westmoreland has inspired many, Middlebrooks, Nava and Kalish have worked their way to the majors and have energized the Boston Red Sox.