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May 10. 2011 11:00PM

Kevin Gray's On Baseball: Sox prospect Middlebrooks on the attack


 

MANCHESTER -- Will Middlebrooks doesn’t have the most patient approach at the plate, but when you’re smoking the fastball, why wait?

“When I’m going right, I like to attack pitches early in the count. If I get my pitch early in the count, I’m on it, and I don’t miss it,” said Middlebrooks, a red-hot Sea Dog batting .343 entering Tuesday night’s game against the Fisher Cats.

Middlebrooks, 22, is shaping up to be the star of Boston’s 2007 draft class. A physical specimen at 6 feet, 4 inches and 200 pounds, the fifth-round pick has displayed terrific athletic skills at third base and projects to hit for power. Monday night against the Fisher Cats, he ripped Chad Beck’s 2-0 fastball off the center field wall and had two hits at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium.

In a recent home game at Portland, Middlebrooks homered on consecutive at-bats, hammering a shot over the “Maine Monster” in left field, and then another blast over the right-field wall for his fourth homer of the year. The Texas native had 12 homers and 70 RBI at Single-A Salem — not that the Red Sox are monitoring his power numbers.

“We don’t talk about that. We’re looking for a consistent approach,” Portland manager Kevin Boles said. “It’s easy to get tempted by (power) because you see his bat speed and see what he can do, but we’re looking for quality hitters and guys who can manage the strike zone.”

To further develop as a hitter, Middlebrooks, who leads the team with 24 strikeouts, must learn to work deeper counts and better handle breaking stuff. Big-league pitchers certainly won’t be laying fastballs down the middle.

“I’m not swinging at much off-speed stuff early in the count. Hit the fastball and don’t get to the off-speed,” he said. “Rarely do you see many good off-speed pitches to hit … Once you get to this level, it’s a bonus if they leave a curveball up.”

Middlebrooks, a former quarterback, had one of the best high-school arms Texas but was overmatched by a good friend, Ryan Mallet, who became a record-setting quarterback at Arkansas and third-round pick of the Patriots.

“I don’t think anyone’s arm compares. I could throw it a little bit, but not like that. He’s got an absolute cannon,” Middlebrooks said.

Watch the Red Sox farmhand take batting practice, and you’ll see cannon-like shots sailing over the wall.

“He does have plus bat speed. He lights up your eyes when you watch him hit,” Boles said.

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PROSPECT WATCH: Stolmy Pimentel (0-4, 5.53 ERA) still doesn’t have a win for the Sea Dogs, but the Dominican righty made his best start of the season Monday against the Fisher Cats, throwing six scoreless innings while striking out seven.

Pimentel, a member of Boston’s 40-man roster, showed the fastball command and off-speed pitches one might expect from a big-name prospect.

“I’ve seen a few of those outings. He’s a guy with a lot of upside,” said Boles, who also managed Pimentel the past two seasons in the minors.

Monday night, the 21-year old displayed an advanced command of his changeup and obvious mound presence.

“He attacks the zone. He profiles as a starting pitcher in the major leagues,” Boles said. “It’s the aggressive approach and mound presence that really stands out for him.”

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MUSTACHE MAY: Why are many of the Sea Dogs wearing cookie dusters? The pitching staff and others are growing mustaches to benefit the Maine Children’s Cancer Program. Portland fans are making pledges in support of their favorite mustached Sea Dog, with all donations going to charity. Relievers Kyle Fernandes and Tommy Hottovy, both lefties, are in the running for the most impressive ‘stache on the team.

Staff writer Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. His email address is kgray@unionleader.com.


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