Will Middlebrooks flips the script

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Who knew Will Middlebrooks had a little Ozzie Smith in him? Not to mention a little Steve Nash.

But in the second inning of the Red Sox’s 6-5 split-squad win over the Orioles on Tuesday, Middlebrooks pulled off a Web Gem glove-flip trick even his teammates didn’t know he had in him.

With no outs, J.J. Hardy on first, Matt Wieters up, the Red Sox in a shift, and Middlebrooks playing just to the left of second base, Middlebrooks charged a Wieters chopper up the middle and forced out Hardy at second, with a blind, no-look flip to shortstop Deven Marrero.

Cue the video machines.

“Goes back to my high school days, playing a little shortstop,” the Red Sox third baseman said nonchalantly afterward.

So does that mean he was a noted glove-flipper back then?

“No, no, no, no, no,” he laughed. “My dad, he’s here right now. He’s probably going to get on me for trying to be a pretty boy. But that was my only play. And it was fun. It was fun to go out there and do that.”

If Middlebrooks has been storing away this latent glove-flipping talent, it seems almost tragic to have wasted it over at third base these last few years. But if he’s depressed about not being able to showcase that act, he isn’t stressing over it.

“It’s going to be a long glove-flip over there,” he quipped. “So I tend to just throw it.”

Yeah, well, that works, too. And whatever works for Middlebrooks out at third base these days, the Red Sox are all for. He’s put in long hours already this spring, working with legendary infield instructor Brian Butterfield, after a 2013 season in which only 17 of 59 big league third basemen (with at least 80 games at third) cost their team more runs in the field than he did, according to FanGraphs.

And that glove-flip play reflects some of the self-assurance that Middlebrooks has built back with all that work this spring, he said.

“I thought about it afterwards,” Middlebrooks said, on a day when he also hit his second home run of the spring. “I didn’t even think about that play. I just did it. That just goes back to [Butterfield] and these coaches, who have got that confidence in my defense back.”

And let’s just say his manager noticed.

“He’s not taken his defense to the plate or vice versa,” said manager John Farrell. “He’s responded favorably. His work ethic has been outstanding since we’ve come to Florida. He’s putting in the required time and energy on all phases of the game.”

Farrell was critical of Middlebrooks last week after a game in which he made two misplays at third. But unless Stephen Drew comes marching into Fort Myers in the next 20 minutes -- and that isn’t likely -- Will Middlebrooks pretty much has this job locked up. Now the Red Sox just need him to restore the promise of his eye-opening rookie season in 2012.

“He’s our third baseman,” Farrell said. “He’s got a profile of skills that you’re not going to find many places. He profiles the position well, and it’s our job to continue to have that confidence grow and address any deficiencies that might exist.”