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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mike Napoli was standing in front of his clubhouse cubicle, speaking with a small cluster of reporters, when a baseball bat wielded like a boom microphone snaked into the middle of the group.
Napoli's face registered no surprise at the interloper. There's some history here.
"I'm a jokester," Will Middlebrooks would say later. "I play around. I keep things light."
|Will Middlebrooks says it has been a "complete 180" from last season: "Now I'm part of the team. I feel like I can be myself a little more."|
This would not have happened last spring, when Middlebrooks, in his first big league camp, occupied space at the far end of the clubhouse and tried to attract as little attention as possible. But that was before he dislodged Kevin Youkilis, a foundational piece of the club, as starting third baseman, leading to Youkilis' trade to the Chicago White Sox.
"Complete 180," Middlebrooks said. "Last year I knew that's not my place. I came up here and I guess I kind of made a name for myself. Now I'm part of the team. I feel like I can be myself a little more.
"I actually can have a little voice. I guess I'm pretty loud sometimes, but that's just who I am. I'm not going to get buried for it now."
You didn't have to look far to find Middlebrooks this spring. His locker was next to Dustin Pedroia's.
"Pedey still tells me to shut up all the time," Middlebrooks said, "but now I can give it back to him. I don't tell him to shut up. I wouldn't, out of respect. But I'll give it back to him.
"He gets on my butt, tells me, 'Let's go. I know you're tired, I know you're grinding, but you gotta go, you gotta practice, you gotta get better.' It works. I listen to him, because I know how hard he works."
Middlebrooks has learned something else, being around Pedroia.
"He's not human," he said. "I'm pretty sure he's not. Pedey ever down? He would never admit it. He's the same even-keeled guy every day."
As much as Middlebrooks has become a more visible -- and audible -- presence in the clubhouse, he aspires to make the most noise in the lineup. Summoned from the minors last May 2, Middlebrooks joined Albert Pujols and Ryan Braun as the only players in the past 15 years to collect at least 15 home runs and 54 RBIs in his first 75 big league games. The last Red Sox player to do that in one season was Norm Zauchin in 1955; Ted Williams was the first, in 1939.
With David Ortiz out indefinitely as he works to return from a strained Achilles tendon, Middlebrooks' bat takes on added importance in the Sox offense.
"I don't put any more pressure on myself," Middlebrooks said. "I still want to do the same thing, whether he's there or not. I don't care if Mark McGwire is on the team. I'm still going to do what I've got to do. My job."
A job that is all about production.
"Absolutely," he said. "Power, driving in runs. I'm not the guy who's going to lay a bunt down and steal two bags. I'm going to bang some stuff off the wall, drive some people in."
Middlebrooks' season abruptly came to an end last Aug. 10 when his right wrist was fractured by a pitch thrown by Cleveland's Esmil Rogers. Oddly, one of Middlebrooks' best friends on the Sox, Mike Aviles, who after the season was traded to Toronto so that the Sox could hire manager John Farrell, was subsequently dealt to the Indians for, you guessed it, Rogers.
"Crazy," Middlebrooks said. "I can't wait to have him over here [in the AL East]. I'll be standing on the back chalk."
Middlebrooks' time on the disabled list, he said, was not wasted.
"Not at all," he said. "I was still out there every day, I was with David, I was with Pedey, still learning, picking their brains, watching every game. Just because I was hurt and wasn't playing didn't mean I wasn't learning. I probably learned more sitting and watching."
Middlebrooks had a scare early in camp when he felt a "zinging sensation" in his wrist while taking a swing in Sarasota, and took himself out of the game. But by night's end, he already felt better, and an MRI the next day revealed everything was OK.
Some scouts suggested that Middlebrooks was still a bit tentative when pitchers pounded him inside with hard stuff, concerned that he could aggravate the wrist. But his performance as camp wound down suggested he was doing just fine. He ran off a streak of nine extra-base hits -- seven doubles, a triple and a home run -- in a span of 10 games. That doesn't include the fly balls that have been knocked down by breezes notoriously unfavorable to hitters this spring in the Jet, where only 12 balls have left the premises in regular exhibitions, just four hit by the Sox. They also hit two in an exhibition against Puerto Rico, one by Middlebrooks, another against Boston College.
|Middlebrooks says it's a looser clubhouse this year but there's still pressure to win. "That goes along with Boston, man," he said.|
Middlebrooks has spent much of the spring batting in either the fifth or sixth spot in the order. It appears, at least until Ortiz returns, that he will occupy the 5-hole behind cleanup hitter Mike Napoli. Pressure to deliver?
"That goes along with Boston, man," said the 24-year-old native of Texarkana, Texas. "There's a pressure to win. There's a pressure to do well. If not, they get rid of you and get someone who will do the job. I'd rather have that pressure to do well than people who don't care. It makes me work harder."
Middlebrooks had one distinction to which no Sox player would ever aspire: being a rookie on one of only three last-place teams the Sox have had since 1932. The collapse came after he was hurt; in the 70 games he started, the Sox were 41-29, a .586 percentage.
"Of course everybody wants to win," he said. "Nobody wants to lose. Nobody wants to be in last place. Nobody wants to have a down year, especially in a city like Boston. People want to win. They want to win the World Series -- not later, not down the road. No, right now."
Burned by the September collapse of 2011 and 2012's last-place finish, fans are approaching this season with a palpable sense of wariness, unconvinced that this club can contend. Middlebrooks begs to differ.
"I think we're in a position to win," he said. "It's a health thing. We have all the pieces here, all the pieces to be a World Series team. We just have to be healthy. Everyone knows that. And even if somebody goes down here or there, we have people who can fill in. We have a good bench."
And they have other young players in the pipeline, including outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., poised to break camp with the big league club, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who is rated the No. 1 prospect in the system.
"Man, he's a stud," Middlebrooks said of Bogaerts. "He's looking really good. I don't know if he'll stay at short."
There is some speculation that Bogaerts, who at 20 may yet add to his 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame, will outgrow short and be moved to third, especially if Jose Iglesias can claim shortstop.
"I guess I'll have to hit .300," Middlebrooks said with a smile. "He's a good enough athlete. It's going to be interesting to see what he's going to do. I know he's going to be a big leaguer, and a good big leaguer."
In the interim, he said, he has offered himself as a resource to both Bradley and Bogaerts.
"I tell them, 'Come to me, I was in your shoes last year. Ask me anything, I'll help you out with anything.' Jackie asked me lots of questions. He's very open to learning and listening."
The newcomers are experiencing a much more relaxed atmosphere than the one Middlebrooks encountered last summer, when one of the season's more notorious episodes involved manager Bobby Valentine cracking "Nice inning, Will" after Middlebrooks made a couple of errors. Middlebrooks later said he didn't even remember Valentine -- who told the story in a radio interview -- making the comment.
"We're just more loose, we're having more fun," Middlebrooks said. "I think that's what the front office was going for, bringing in solid players and at the same time good personalities and clubhouse guys.
"That's what we needed, to bring in guys like [Jonny] Gomes, [Shane] Victorino, Stephen [Drew], Nap [Mike Napoli]. Having guys like that around rubs off on everyone."
And if it means Will Middlebrooks, intrepid TV reporter, can stick a bat microphone into a crowd, so much the better.
"When you can be comfortable and be yourself, you can focus more on baseball, not try to hide who you are," Middlebrooks said.
"We're not looking in the past. We're not looking in the future. We're just worried about today. Just win today, and worry about everything else as it comes."