Sunday, June 20, 2010
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: 'Sure thing' grasps approach

Will Middlebrooks left high school three years ago with a buzz cut, a clean shave and a sure-thing label.

Every number associated with him screamed excellence. His grade point average (4.0). His top radar gun reading as a prep pitcher (97). His average yardage per boot his senior year as an all-state punter at Liberty Eylau High School in Texarkana, Texas (50). His height (6-4). His weight (195). His 40-yard dash time (4.5).

But the maturation of Middlebrooks from the toolsy, three-sport athlete he was then to the bona fide major-league prospect he is now comes down to a single digit: One.

As in one pitch, one location.

One approach that never changes.

Today, the Salem Red Sox conclude the first half of their Carolina League campaign. Middlebrooks, their outstanding third baseman, has made the midseason all-star team for the first time as a pro. That was a goal for him coming into the season, and his blistering .362 average in April all but assured he'd meet it.

He's cooled some since then -- Middlebrooks entered Saturday night's game hitting .287 with 21 doubles and four homers -- but there are no concerns about a prolonged slump moving forward.

"It's been a work in progress," Middlebrooks said in the dugout a few hours before Friday's game against Kinston. "In high school, you really don't have an approach at the plate. You go up there and you keep it stupid. You see it, you hit it. Here, pitchers are better. You have to have a plan. You have to have an approach."

His is the same one preached to all players in the Red Sox system: Start every at-bat looking for one pitch in one spot. If you don't get it, lay off.

Sounds pretty remedial, doesn't it? But mastering such pitch recognition and discipline is difficult -- and vital -- for young players. For Middlebrooks, gone are the wild waves at first-pitch breaking balls, replaced with 1-0 counts, longer at-bats and, ultimately, more fastballs for him to whack in the gaps.

"It should be a habit," he said. "In those first couple years, I was having to think about it and think about it. And now that I'm not, I can come out here and have more fun."

Friday's game was a fine example. In his first at-bat, he struck out looking on a 2-2 fastball on the inside corner that he thought was off the plate. A lousy outcome, sure, but the fact is he still saw five pitches.

So in his next trip, it was easier for him to identify one he liked. He promptly belted a two-run triple to deep center. And in the next at-bat, he roped a double the opposite way.

He adjusts like a man who's figured things out, because he has.

Middlebrooks looks different, too. He's grown his dark hair medium length for the first time in ages. Black stubble graces his chin. The 21-year-old's lean frame has begun to fill out, now a sturdy 220 pounds. He appears much older and more mature than the grinning kid in the high school pictures, including those shots of him signing a letter-of-intent to punt and play baseball at Texas A&M.

He never wound up in College Station, of course. The Red Sox took him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft -- he likely would have gone higher had clubs not feared his college commitment -- but Middlebrooks was not nearly the signability risk some assumed he'd be.

"This is what I always wanted to do," said Middlebrooks, whose mother was a teacher and father has coached football and baseball for nearly three decades. "A lot of times out of high school it's about the money or where you go in the draft, but to me it was really about getting the opportunity to play and start my career three years earlier than I would have."

Many clubs eyed him as a pitcher, but Middlebrooks made it clear he wanted to play every day. The arm still dazzles from third base on a nightly basis.

"This is the honest-to-God truth," said Sox pitcher Fabian Williamson, one of Middlebrooks' roommates, "when he throws it to first, I always tell him, 'you probably throw harder than me.' "

Williamson smiled.

"Which is kind of sad, but whatever," he said.

No need to be sad about it, or else the entire Red Sox clubhouse would be funereal. Baseball America pegged Middlebrooks' infield arm as the best in the Boston system.

Now, though, you're starting to see more than just tools. Thanks to the confidence his approach has instilled, Middlebrooks almost looks like he's back in high school, starring as a dual-threat quarterback, placing those booming punts wherever he pleased, acing every test that crossed his desk.

"Every day, I try to come out here and play like I'm 10 again," he said.

"Instead of worrying about going 0-for-4, worry about where you're going to get pizza after the game. Just have fun. Just enjoy it. Realize that it's a game. It is your job, but it's a game."

One that takes time to grasp fully, even for a sure thing.

Read Aaron McFarling's Daily Sports Briefing weekday mornings on The Press Box blog at roanoke.com/sports

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