Middlebrooks returns, lifts Sox over Royals

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- No, he said with a chuckle, he didn't make scratch marks on the wall, recording the passage of days like a prisoner recording his time in captivity.

But after nearly seven weeks away, Will Middlebrooks admitted it was not easy, especially at the beginning, to accept he was no longer in the big leagues.

"The first couple of weeks were tough, man," Middlebrooks said Saturday upon his return to the Red Sox after being demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket on June 25. "I didn't want to be there. I didn't see the big picture of things. I just saw the right now: I got sent down. I lost my job."

In his first game back at third base, Middlebrooks did a nice job staking a claim to his old position in a 5-3 win over the Royals after Kansas City had won the two first two games of this four-game set. Middlebrooks flared a two-run single to right in Boston's four-run fourth, beat out an infield hit in the sixth, and twice scored from first on doubles by Jacoby Ellsbury.

"He steps right in and contributes," manager John Farrell said. "I don't care where the ball goes. Lands on the grass, we score two runs. He beats out the infield hit, he's playing hard, he's hustling."

Middlebrooks had pledged he would not place undue pressure on himself, now that he's back. Even so, after flying out to left in his first at-bat, it had to be a lift to come through after a walk to Mike Carp, a single by Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and a double by Stephen Drew (11-game hitting streak) produced a run and left runners on second and third.

"Absolutely," he said. "Two RBIs. We're at a point in the season where every game is a must-win. It's always a close race in this league, especially with Baltimore and Tampa playing the way they are."

Not to mention, sending a positive message to his teammates.

"I just want to come in and play hard," he said. "That's what it's about, you know."

Ellsbury had four hits -- two doubles and two singles -- drove in two runs, stole a base and also got great jumps on two line drives that could have been trouble -- making a running catch with the bases loaded in the first and a sliding catch with a runner on second in the eighth.

The Red Sox will try to salvage a split Sunday by sending John Lackey to the mound against James Shields while relishing the idea that they gained a game on both Tampa Bay and Baltimore in the AL East as the Yankees sank further into irrelevance -- 11 games behind in the division and trailing six teams in the wild-card race.

The Sox finally succeeded in cooling off the Royals, who had won 17 of 21 games since the All-Star break, staged their league-leading 35th comeback win of the season (tied with Texas) Friday night and threw a scare into the Sox again Saturday night by scoring three runs in the fifth after falling behind 4-0. The runs were charged to Sox starter Felix Doubront, who was yanked with no outs after the first four Kansas City batters reached on a walk and three hits, including doubles by Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler.

Rookie Brandon Workman struck out Justin Maxwell, who had homered in each of the first two games of the series, then gave up a run-scoring single to Miguel Tejada, who pumped his arms exhorting a crowd of 38,742 at Kauffman Stadium. But after a double steal, Workman pitched out of it, retiring Mike Moustakas on a pop fly and striking out Brett Hayes.

Left-hander Craig Breslow then picked up Workman in the sixth, snuffing a potential rally by inducing Hosmer to ground into a double play. Junichi Tazawa worked a scoreless seventh and eighth, and Koji Uehara set down the Royals in the ninth, the bullpen combining to shut out K.C. on four hits over the last five innings. Uehara now has a dozen saves, and has pitched 16 straight scoreless innings, matching his career high.

Middlebrooks, meanwhile, provided punch from a position that had accounted for little in the past month, Jose Iglesias batting just .167 (11-for-66) in his past 19 games before being traded July 30, and the platoon of Brock Holt and Brandon Snyder combining to go 5-for-38 (.132) with no home runs and three RBIs in the 10 games since the deal.

Middlebrooks had hit safely in his past eight games in Pawtucket before being told Friday night that he was rejoining the Sox and said that he had made a couple of minor mechanical adjustments at the plate that had led to more walks and more hitter-friendly pitch counts, which meant more pitches to square up.

There was work to be done above the neck, too. Manager John Farrell used the word "focus.”

"Every player finds himself in that situation at one time or another in your career," the Sox manager said. "One of the things when a player signs a contract, they're hit with, 'This is what you have to focus on.' It can be a mantra, it can be very boring to the player, the taking away from the end result.

"You can ride the elevator of when you're going good, when you're going bad. Sometimes, your thoughts are directed in ways you can't impact, whether it's how people think to perceive you. The only thing you can control is the preparation of today, then go out with the freedom of knowing you put the work in and let things fall where they may.

"Sometimes, harping on what has happened and trying to make up for time that has gone by -- that's where the spiral can really start to unfold."

The lesson evidently was not lost on Middlebrooks. It helped, he said, to be with manager Gary DiSarcina and hitting coach Dave Joppie, both of whom had been with him in the lower minors.

"That's a good foundation to get back my feet under me, get back to basics and have fun again," he said. "As a young guy in this market, you can get caught up in a lot of off-field stuff, a little bit of everything, and it snowballed on me. I didn't have blinders on like I normally do and just play baseball. I worried about this and that. You can't do that and perform at this high a level."

Middlebrooks had written in his diary for ESPNBoston.com that he didn't want to be traded, even as he tried to ignore the swirl of speculation around him. He's cut himself off from social media like Twitter, he said, as part of his effort to reduce the distractions.

"Man, I want to be a consistent player," he said. "That's another word we use along with focus. On and off the field, offense, defense, be a good teammate. That's what it's about."

The most valuable takeaway from his time in Pawtucket?

"Oh man, just not to take this for granted," he said. "You can lose this real quick. I'm just going to take it day by day and going to have fun."