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April 05. 2014 11:10PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: How will the Sox line up?

BOSTON --- It was a year ago tomorrow that a locked-in Will Middlebrooks unloaded on the Blue Jays, launching three home runs and a double to pile up 14 total bases in a dominant display at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. A week into the 2013 season, he already had four homers, a .320 batting average, and a 1.250 on-base plus slugging.

But 16 games subsequently elapsed before Middlebrooks totaled his next 14 bases, and within about six weeks of that career afternoon his grip on the role of the Red Sox' starting third baseman had seriously weakened. By mid-June he was back in the minors for a couple of months.

This is a pertinent reminder after Middlebrooks' powerful bat showed signs of life late in the first week of the new season, first when his two hits factored prominently in Boston's win of Thursday night's rubber match at Baltimore, then again when he cleared the Green Monster with his first circuit clout of the campaign during Friday's home opener. Sustained consistency is what the Sox are looking for from him, not just these short bursts of impact.

Though if he can keep this going, and start to realize his perceived potential on a regular basis, he could be just what this Sox lineup needs.

On the card itself, the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yankees most hurts the Sox at the top of the order, where he batted in all 134 of the games he played last season. But, especially when coupled with Shane Victorino - who probably hits first or second when he's healthy - starting the season on the disabled list, it's via the trickle-down effect that the voids are most noticeable.

Without a steady leadoff option, manager John Farrell used Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes in that role during the first four games. He also slid Dustin Pedroia up to second in the order, so David Ortiz hit third and Mike Napoli batted clean-up.

With that sliding, though, it leaves a gap in the No. 5 hole, with no natural solution - especially with Gomes or Nava moved to the top of the order. It could eventually be a good fit for Xander Bogaerts, who had three hits from there last Thursday, though the Sox would prefer to let the rookie grow into the role before he's pressed into service. Grady Sizemore's comeback could play a factor as well, either there or at the top, though, again, Boston is leery of giving him too much too soon.

Middlebrooks, on the contrary, should be ready for this. He's 25 years old. This is his third major-league season. He's learning, still, but he's on the cusp of what should be his prime. As a power-hitting corner infielder, he's at a point in his career where when his team needs a No. 5 hitter, he should be ready to serve and protect the others in the heart of its order.

Instead, Middlebrooks hit ninth in three of the Sox' first four contests, and seventh in the other. Each time it was two spots behind Bogaerts - who rewarded that confidence by reaching base in eight of his first 12 plate appearances - which suggests the club's brass is more intent on easing the burden asked of their third baseman than their shortstop.

But if Middlebrooks can continue to deliver along the lines of what he did Thursday and Friday, especially coming off a spring training during which he was the team's best hitter, that could change. And if he doesn't, by the second half of the season he might be looking over his shoulder if prospect Garin Cecchini performs as expected at Triple-A. That factor makes the coming weeks and months rather important for Middlebrooks.

And if he makes the most of them, that'll likely prove to be quite important for what the Red Sox are trying to accomplish in 2014, too.

"My biggest thing is my body feels really good," Middlebrooks said, "I feel like I can play, and I'm just trying to keep it there."

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Middlebrooks, Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley combined to go 7-for-12 and score all four Boston runs in the Sox win at Baltimore on Thursday night - providing a youthful infusion the likes have been relatively rare for this team of late.

Last year the Sox ranked 21st in baseball with 214 hits from players age 25 or younger, while ranking 18th in both runs scored (111) and runs batted in (108). Only six teams got fewer games from position players of that age than Boston's 269.

The Sox were in the bottom six of all those categories in 2012, and sharing the bottom two in 2011, so even while Bradley is likely to return to the minors when Victorino returns from his hamstring injury, it's refreshing to see a big-market team like Boston trusting - and getting its faith rewarded by - its youth in the early part of the year, even while trying to defend a world title.

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They don't visit Manchester until May 23, but when the Portland Sea Dogs do make the bus ride to face the Fisher Cats they'll be hauling a whole lot of talent with them.

The Red Sox Double-A affiliate began the season this week with a roster regarded as one of the most stacked in all the minor leagues, and a few of its pieces lived up to the hype this week. Lefthander Henry Owens opened the year with six no-hit innings against the Reading Phillies. Second baseman Mookie Betts went 7 for his first 8. Former first-round picks Deven Marrero and Blake Swihart are at shortstop and catcher, respectively. And Travis Shaw, who was invited to major-league camp this spring, is the first baseman.

Based on that collection, the Sea Dogs should certainly be worth seeing - when they're in town, and before they get to Boston.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: Mike Napoli walked twice on Friday, both times seeing 10 pitches before winning the battle. Entering Saturday he'd seen 4.61 pitches per plate appearance, right in line with last year's league-leading 4.57.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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