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Closing Time: Franklin Morales, Will Middlebrooks dominate Braves

06.23.12 at 10:22 pm ET
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Franklin Morales earned his second straight win as a starter on Saturday. (AP)

Maybe, the Red Sox hoped, Franklin Morales would be able to log four or five innings when pressed into an emergency start by the injured shoulder of Josh Beckett last weekend. Perhaps he could go long enough, pitch well enough, to give his team a chance to win.

No one could have forecast what Morales has done in his first two starts since 2009. After he delivered five overpowering innings against the Cubs, striking out nine and walking none, Morales backed up that outing with another in which his stuff was simply better than a lineup of major league hitters. This time, it was the Braves who were the victims in an 8-4 Red Sox victory, though initially, it did not appear as if such an outcome was in the offing.

Morales opened the game by throwing first-pitch balls to the first three batters he faced. The result? Single whacked to center, walk, double steal, RBI infield single.

If he was still in the bullpen, Morales might have been lifted. Instead, he remained in the game, and started picking the Braves apart. With runners on the corners, he elicited back-to-back strikeouts (Dan Uggla, Freddie Freeman) and then Chipper Jones lined out when his rocket went straight into the glove of Mike Aviles.

From there, he remained in a groove, blitzing through the next three innings while facing the minimum nine batters. He did not allow a walk for the rest of the night. Though he did allow single runs in both the fifth and sixth innings, he finished the night having submitted his first quality start since April 8, 2009, finishing the night having allowed three runs on seven hits in six innings.

In two starts, he has not merely been adequate — he has been overpowering while featuring two swing-and-miss pitches (a fastball that regularly comes in at 96 mph — a velocity that he maintained into his sixth and final inning — and a terrific split changeup) along with the occasional curveball.

The left-hander never struck out more than six batters in any of his 15 starts with the Rockies, resulting in his permanent move to the bullpen in 2009. In two starts with the Sox, he has now done so twice, with nine punchouts in his first start and eight on Saturday. In 11 innings as a starter for the Sox, he has recorded 17 of his 33 outs (52 percent) by strikeout, and while punching out 17, he has walked just one.

He has shown electrifying stuff, and a newfound willingness to attack the strike zone relentlessly. In short, with Josh Beckett due to come back soon, the Red Sox now face a fascinating dilemma, because in Morales, they’ve discovered a pitcher who is showing the ability to overpower opponents as a starter.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

Will Middlebrooks is off to the sort of start to his career that requires the benefit of decades of baseball for comparison. He went 3-for-4 on Saturday night, banging a run-scoring double off the Wall in left-center in the first, turning on a 90 mph two-seamer and launching it into the Monster Seats in the third and rifling a single to right in the fifth.

In his first 40 big league games, he is now hitting .331 with a .368 OBP, .592 slugging mark and .960 OPS. At age 23, he has a chance to become just the sixth Red Sox in history with an OPS of .900 or better at age 23 or younger, joining three Hall of Famers (Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams), someone who earned both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors for his performance (Fred Lynn) and an MVP runner-up (Mike Greenwell). He leads all American League rookies with nine homers. In his first 40 games, he has now driven in 33 runs, the most by any American League rookie since Wally Joyner in 1986.

The performance has been little short of breathtaking. In his last five games, he is now 10-for-14 with three doubles, three homers and 10 RBI.

– In his first 15 games since returning from a torn thumb muscle on June 5, Dustin Pedroia was hitting .145 with a .206 OBP, .194 slugging percentage and .399 OPS. Given the depths of those struggles, it may well be that the most significant performance of Saturday’s game was by neither Morales nor Middlebrooks but instead by Pedroia, who went 3-for-3 (his first three-hit game since May 11) with a walk. It was the third time this year that he’s reached base at least four times in a game.

Adrian Gonzalez went 2-for-5 while delivering arguably the pivotal at-bat of the night. In the bottom of the first, he stepped to the plate with runners on the corners and two outs, and the Sox trailing, 1-0. He worked starter Randal Delgado to a full count, fouled off a 94 mph fastball on the inside corner and then stayed on a changeup, lining it to right to tie the game. That extended the inning for Middlebrooks’ RBI double, not only putting the Sox ahead, but also putting Delgado on the ropes early, positioning the Sox to knock him out and get into the Atlanta bullpen in the third inning.

Cody Ross went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles. In five games since returning from a broken foot, he is 5-for-18 (.278) with three doubles and a homer.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

– In a year in which he has almost never struggled, Scott Atchison, well, struggled. The right-hander came on in relief of Morales for the seventh, and promptly turned a comfortable 6-3 advantage into a dicey situation, allowing a pair of hits (a bunt single and then a double), an RBI groundout and a walk to put the tying run on base. He was lifted with the Sox holding a 6-4 advantage and the heart of the Braves order coming up; left-hander Andrew Miller stranded the inherited runners when a bullet off the bat of Braves masher Brian McCann was caught at first by Gonzalez, who then stepped on the bag for an unassisted double play.

Ryan Kalish went 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts and a walk. In six games, he’s now hitting .190 with a .451 OPS.

– Though he launched a ball to the warning track in left-center, David Ortiz still finished the day 0-for-X, and in his last three games, he is now (0-for-7 plus today).

Read More: adrian gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, franklin morales, Will Middlebrooks
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