The hot corner is now all his

Team shows faith in Middlebrooks

By Alex Prewitt
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2012
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As he left his final game in a Red Sox uniform Sunday, removed after a seventh-inning triple, Kevin Youkilis received a rousing ovation from the Fenway faithful, a emotional tribute to the infielder’s contributions over eight-plus seasons that included three All-Star Games and two World Series rings.

But that moment is gone. The torch has been passed. Only one flame remains lit at the hot corner.

With Youkilis shipped off to the White Sox, Will Middlebrooks is Boston’s full-time third baseman, a move that seemed inevitable given the way Middlebrooks put a stranglehold on the position.

No more lineup shuffling. No more platooning. No more days off. Just further consistency by a rookie who already has boasted it in spades.

“If you wake up every day and go, ‘All right, I’m playing today,’ it’s comforting,’’ Middlebrooks said before the Sox’ 9-6 loss to the Blue Jays, in which he went 1 for 4 with a double. “It’s definitely a confidence builder. It feels good.

“If we can come in here and have more of an idea of who’s playing every day, it slows things down for everyone.’’

In swapping Youkilis for utilityman Brent Lillibridge and pitcher Zach Stewart, the Red Sox displayed full confidence in Middlebrooks as their third baseman. That idea came to the fore as the 23-year-old emerged as one of the league’s top rookies since being promoted May 2.

Middlebrooks, who said he had not spoken to Youkilis since the trade, entered the day leading all rookies with 34 RBIs, the most by an American League player in his first 41 games since Wally Joyner had 39 in 1986.

Middlebrooks was the first player to have at least a .331 average, 9 home runs, and 33 RBIs through 40 career games since Albert Pujols, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“I think he’s a work in progress, but I think the growing is going to be fun for us all to watch,’’ manager Bobby Valentine said. “Not without pain though, I’m sure.’’

On Sunday, Middlebrooks did something he had not done in the majors: He started at DH.

“I like the way he’s handled the days when he didn’t perform particularly well, as well as the days he has performed well and the days when he’s sat out,’’ Valentine said. “I liked the way he DH’d, the way there was a real calm approach in the dugout and at the plate for a guy who’s never DH’d before.’’

But with all the changes he endured, Middlebrooks never altered his approach.

“I do the same things day in and day out, whether I was playing or not, so nothing really changes,’’ he said. “I put that on myself the whole time I’ve been here, to do well.

“Everything’s going to be the same. I come in here with the same intent to get better every day and just help us win.’’

Middlebrooks was named the American League Player of the Week after going 10 for 16 over six games with 3 doubles, 3 homers, and 10 RBIs, including a tying two-run homer in the eighth inning in Thursday’s win over Miami.

“A lot of people do it one time,’’ Valentine joked. “That’s what they always say when someone hits a home run. But it’s a nice honor, he had a great week.’’

For Middlebrooks, the award was not even on his mind.

“I’m happy, I’m honored,’’ he said. “But at the same time, it’s one week. Hopefully I can keep it going.’’

Alex Prewitt can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt.

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