|Closing Time: Will and a way — Middlebrooks leads Red Sox to comeback victory||06.21.12 at 10:24 pm ET|
The crossroads may have arrived. Will Middlebrooks may be forcing the Red Sox’ hand.
The 23-year-old was a force on Wednesday night, going 3-for-4 with a game-tying two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning serving as the centerpiece of a night in which he drove in four runs, playing a central role in a three-run, eighth-inning rally that led the Red Sox to a 6-5 come-from-behind victory over the Marlins. For the year, Middlebrooks is now hitting .419 with a 1.226 OPS with runners in scoring position, serving as a game-changing presence.
The Sox are now 22-13 in games that Middlebrooks has started and 13-15 in contests when Kevin Youkilis has been their starter at third base. The team has been trying to coax productivity out of Youkilis to enhance his value to the team, whether through his performance in the Sox lineup or as trade bait, but at some point, the disparity between the production of Middlebrooks (hitting .316 with a .903 OPS, 8 homers and 31 RBI) and Youkilis (.225 with a .670 OPS, 4 homers and 13 RBI) may become too great to be able to justify keeping the rookie out of the lineup.
On Thursday, Middlebrooks underscored that point in spectacular fashion, something that will make it all the more difficult for him to be held out of games going forward.
WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX
– Daniel Nava continued his remarkable contributions, delivering the game-winning RBI with a single up the middle to punctuate a 2-for-4 day in which he reached base three times. He now is hitting .340 with a .455 OBP and .973 OPS.
– Ryan Kalish offered an energy play as part of the Red Sox’ game-winning eighth-inning rally. After Middlebrooks tied the game with a homer, he singled and then advanced to third on a hit-and-run groundout. With the Marlins infield in, Nava was able to fight off a pitch for the game-winning hit.
– How good has Scott Atchison been this year? He tossed two scoreless innings and barely impacted his ERA, going from 1.24 to 1.17. It was his 10th outing of at least two innings. He earned the victory to improve to 2-0.
WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX
– Dustin Pedroia continued his struggles this month, going 0-for-5 with four groundouts and a weak pop-out in his first game back since suffering a scare when jammed on Tuesday night. He is now hitting .264 with a .716 OPS.
– Andrew Miller saw his streak of six straight appearances without allowing a hit come to an end. He gave up a pair of hits and a run while recording two outs.
WHAT WENT DAISUKE FOR THE RED SOX
As has become his custom, Daisuke Matsuzaka defied the simple binary construct of what went right and wrong.
The right-hander was on the ropes in the first inning, an excruciating frame in which he permitted three hits, three steals and walked a batter, in the process requiring 33 pitches — a sufficient workload to prompt manager Bobby Valentine to have right-hander Clay Mortensen warming in the bullpen. From there, he was nearly perfect, retiring the next 14 batters, sailing efficiently into the sixth inning, moving to the verge of a quality start.
Then, with one out in the sixth, Matsuzaka had Giancarlo Stanton cornered with a 1-2 count…and promptly lobbed a slider over the middle of the plate that the Marlins power hitter rifled into the Monster Seats. The pitch was so poor that Matsuzaka slouched, hands on knees and head dropped to the ground, ruing the final pitch he threw on the night. He left the mound with the Sox trailing, and ultimately received a no-decision in Boston’s 6-5 victory.
All things considered, Matsuzaka has been consistent for the Red Sox since his return from Tommy John surgery. He has pitched at least five innings while allowing either three or four runs in each of his three starts. He’s delivered outings sufficient to give his team a chance, but little more than that; the Sox have not been able to capitalize on those chances, and so Matsuzaka is now 0-2 with a 5.51 ERA, 15 strikeouts and five walks in his 16 1/3 innings.
For now, he represents a reasonable but unspectacular option at the back end of the rotation. But at a time when Matsuzaka is in the final months of his six-year, $52 million contract, an upgrade over the right-hander represents an obvious area for the team to explore now that the trade deadline is less than six weeks away.
That is not to suggest that Matsuzaka cannot be a contributor. At times in this brief stretch, his fastball has shown more power (running 92-94 mph with movement) than it has in recent years, and his command, by and large, looks more precise than in recent years. Opponents are hitting just .220 against him.
Still, his outings have flashed the same inconsistency that has plagued him throughout his career, particularly since 2009.
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