A giant step closer to Fenway

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- There's a strong possibility Will Middlebrooks is the future third baseman for the Boston Red Sox, and he took another step toward that goal Friday when the organization promoted him from Double-A Portland to Triple-A Pawtucket.

The 22-year-old arrived at McCoy Stadium only a few hours prior to the PawSox's game against the Columbus Clippers, and saw his name on the lineup card as Pawtucket's designated hitter and batting fifth.

The PawSox defeated the Clippers 7-1, and Middlebrooks finished the night 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.

"He got into some deep counts against a veteran pitcher [Columbus' Mitch Talbot], and probably got a quick taste of what he's going to get up here at Triple-A with runners in scoring position and bases open," PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler said. "There were some pretty tough situations against a guy who has pitched in the big leagues for a while. He threw him a lot of off-speed and pounded him late, and the guy's got good enough command where he didn't miss with it. He probably learned what it's like to get behind in the count up here, and it's not a lot of fun."

It's also understandable to cut Middlebrooks some slack, though, because he was working on only two hours of sleep in his debut. The Sea Dogs' bus arrived back in Portland at 8:30 Friday morning after a road trip to Reading, Pa. Middlebrooks went home to sleep and missed the first phone call from Sea Dogs manager Kevin Boles at 10 a.m. When Middlebrooks' cell rang a second time, it woke him up, and that's when he learned of his promotion to Triple-A.

He quickly packed his bags and headed south to Pawtucket. He hit some traffic on the way and was delayed a bit by inclement weather before arriving at McCoy Stadium just as the PawSox were finishing batting practice. He was able to take some swings in the cage in preparation for his first Triple-A game.

Beyeler said he hasn't seen too much of Middlebrooks, but the Pawtucket skipper has received solid reports on his newest third baseman.

"He's swinging the bat and playing solid defense," Beyeler said. "They had been looking for an opportunity to get him up here, and everything is ready to roll."

Even though he served as the PawSox's DH in his debut, Middlebrooks will be playing third base, starting Saturday during the annual Futures at Fenway minor league doubleheader at Fenway Park.

Rewind to two weeks ago, when Red Sox veteran third baseman Kevin Youkilis sat in the dugout at Fenway Park, and spoke with ESPNBoston.com about his career in Boston and what the future holds for himself and Middlebrooks.

Youkilis, 32, has one year remaining on his contract with a club option for 2013, and no matter whether he re-signs with Boston or ends up playing for another team, he seems to be content with either scenario.

"I don't know what their plans are past [2013] but I actually think it would be cool, if I don't play here, that there's going to be another guy to enjoy the opportunities that I had," he said. "I've been thinking about that a lot. Probably for the first time in my life, I haven't worried about if I had to go to another team and it doesn't bother me. I've had so many great things that have happened to me here, and if I have to go at some point, it is what it is. The coolest thing is that somebody gets to come here and play."

And Middlebrooks could possibly become the next Kevin Youkilis?

"And that's cool," Youkilis said. "I think every player should have that attitude and I don't think guys should be bitter that somebody is going to take their job. It's a cool thing, and somebody should get the experience of playing here and having fans cheer for them and enjoy it. I've had that luxury and I've had that for a long time."

Middlebrooks said he appreciates the veteran's support.

"That's definitely encouraging to have someone behind you like that, someone you look up to," Middlebrooks said. "Just to be able to stay in one organization this long and hopefully able to make it to the big leagues with this organization will be exciting."

At this point of his development, it's unfair to compare Middlebrook's potential to what Youkilis has already accomplished in his career.

According to a National League scout, Middlebrooks doesn't draw walks or control the strike zone like Youkilis. However, the scout added, Middlebrooks is better defensively and sports a cannon of an arm.

Now that he's playing at a higher level, Middlebrooks said, he's not going to change his approach.

"I'm not changing a thing," he said. "Baseball is always going to be baseball. I'm just going up there with the same approach I've had all season."

He hit .302 in 96 games with 25 doubles, one triple, 18 homers and 80 RBIs. His 80 RBIs led the Eastern League.

"I've felt great," he said of his approach at the plate. "The biggest thing this year was I wanted to be consistent, stay consistent with my approach and my plan, and I've done that."

He did spend some time on the disabled list (June 11-26) with a right triceps strain.

Prior to the July 31 trade deadline, Middlebrooks drew a lot of attention from other organizations, including the New York Mets. The Red Sox and Mets were in talks regarding New York outfielder Carlos Beltran, but the Mets wanted Middlebrooks and fellow Red Sox prospect Chih-Hsien Chiang, and Boston did not want to part with either.

"It means a lot, and I trust these guys in the front office. I know they have a plan for every one of us and I trust their experience," Middlebrooks said.

At the time of Middlebrooks' promotion, the Sea Dogs were out of the playoff hunt. The PawSox, however, are battling for a postseason berth.

"We had a tough May and started to play good ball the last two months, but we were so far back it was tough to dig out of that hole," Middlebrooks said. "It should be a lot of fun."

When he walked into the home clubhouse at McCoy Stadium, he received a warm reception from his new teammates in Pawtucket, many of whom he's played with at lower levels during his pro career in the Boston organization.

"Just coming in and being able to be comfortable and knowing the guys will help a lot," he said.

When Middlebrooks met with Beyeler in the manager's office Friday afternoon, it was a quick meeting, something Beyeler has been through time and again during his managerial career.

The message is simple: "Shake his hand, tell him to go play," Beyeler said. "There's a reason you're here and have some fun."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.