DENVER -- This is what can happen, the manager said, when a young player overcomes the shock of being demoted to the minors, embraces the reasons why he was sent down and works to correct the error of his ways.
"This is testimony to what happens when you accept things and go down and work on them,'' the manager said. "When your mind is right, what you can accomplish. Sometimes it can take a couple of weeks, a month, to get your mind right. He found himself and it paid off for us.''
The speaker was New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, and he was talking about his young right-hander, Ivan Nova, who spent three weeks in June in Triple-A, then returned to the Bronx and pitched well enough to be named the American League's pitcher of the month in August.
But it's a message that also has relevance for the Boston Red Sox and Will Middlebrooks, the 25-year-old third baseman who never imagined that his second season in the big leagues would include a 51-day exile to Pawtucket that began on the first day of summer. Even after the Red Sox traded away his replacement, Jose Iglesias, they did not immediately recall Middlebrooks, who was not summoned back until Aug. 10.
His rookie season, 2012, was abruptly curtailed when he was hit by a pitch that fractured his wrist. This may have been even more painful. Which is one of the reasons why Middlebrooks was so moved by being on the field in Fenway Park last Friday night, after the Red Sox won the American League East.
"Words can't even explain it, man,'' he said. "I'm so happy for my teammates, everyone I've worked with. It's been great.''
Middlebrooks had begun the season with the Red Sox counting on him to be a key right-handed bat in the meat of the order, a role he looked primed to fulfill when he hit three home runs in Toronto in the sixth game of the season. The promise on display as a rookie, when he hit 15 home runs in just 75 games, was looking like a preview of coming attractions.
But then he stumbled dramatically, sliding into a slump seemingly without end. In the first three games after his three-homer game, he went 0-for-11, which became a 2-for-18 slide, then a 2-for-30, which morphed into a crippling 5-for-54 (.093) over a span of 14 games. And with that came physical woes: a collision with catcher David Ross that left him with a separated rib, then a lower back issue that only added to his misery.
Middlebrooks went on the disabled list in late May, came back in early June, hit just .138 (4-for-29) in seven games upon his return, then was called into John Farrell's office, where the Sox manager and GM Ben Cherington informed him he was being sent to Pawtucket.
A matter of getting his head right? Middlebrooks wouldn't put it quite that way.
"That's a lot of it,'' he said, "but it played into my health. Getting healthy helped my head get into it. Going out, not having to worry about getting hurt, just going out and playing, and not having to limit yourself. That made a difference.''
Middlebrooks insisted he wasn't paying attention to his name surfacing in rumors around the trade deadline. Iglesias had handled the transition from shortstop to third base seamlessly and had hit far beyond expectations. There was speculation that Middlebrooks could be dealt for a pitcher.
Instead, it was Iglesias who was traded, part of a three-team deal that sent Iglesias to the Detroit Tigers and pitcher Jake Peavy from the Chicago White Sox to the Red Sox. Iglesias's departure did not result in an immediate recall for Middlebrooks, but served to reinforce his belief that he still had a bright future with the Sox.
"Getting past the trade deadline helped him out a lot," Pawtucket manager Gary DiSarcina told Joe McDonald of ESPNBoston.com. "For a young player in this market, you can't help but be affected by outside noise, you just can't. You can't live in a bubble, especially being a young player, it's just not natural.
"He's going to listen to things. He's going to hear things, so when he got by that he started settling down, especially with his routine and his at-bats."
Both healthy and reassured, Middlebrooks produced upon his return. He had two hits and two RBIs in his first game back, hit safely in eight games in a row and homered against the Yankees. He not only played third, but Farrell used him as a substitute second baseman and this past weekend gave him a start at first.
Like the rest of the team, which hit .317 and averaged more than 11 runs a game in the first eight games of September, Middlebrooks has cooled off. In their past dozen games, the Sox have averaged 4.5 runs and posted a slash line of .249/.326/.405; Middlebrooks is in the deepest slump, batting just .114 (4-for-35) with a walk and 11 strikeouts after opening the month batting .464 with four home runs in seven games.
But no one is panicking. Middlebrooks learned the hard way not to take anything for granted, but it is clear he has reclaimed the team's trust.
"Those are all the things I had to earn back,'' he said. "That's what I'm trying to do.''