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May 17. 2014 11:22PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Sox' growing pains beginning to hurt

BOSTON -- Max Scherzer had shut them out for six innings, but after evicting the American League's reigning Cy Young winner a batter into the seventh, the Red Sox actually found themselves with a decent chance to steal Friday's game from the Tigers. Mike Carp had led off the frame with a single. Xander Bogaerts reached by taking a fastball in the arm. Boston had two on with nobody out, trailing by just a run. In that scenario, win expectancy projections said the game was theirs to lose.

But those numbers didn't account for the fact that Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks were the next two due up. Or for the patience-testing growing pains those young players are experiencing. So the rally fizzled. And the Red Sox lost.

Bradley battled, fouling off three straight pitches with the count 1-and-2, but ultimately his hack came up empty on an Evan Reed slider. Then Middlebrooks didn't get the chance, despite having delivered a couple of clutch late-inning hits the last couple weeks, as he was lifted in favor of pinch-hitter A.J. Pierzynski.

Manager John Farrell said he decided to go with Pierzynski instead of Middlebrooks because the third baseman had a swelling finger, and because it avoided a righty-on-righty confrontation with Reed. Middlebrooks' finger proved to be fractured, and prompted the Sox to put him on the disabled list Saturday -- but even still the manager needed no excuse to hit for Middlebrooks. Or for Bradley.

With an 0-for-2 on Saturday, Middlebrooks' average slid to .197, and his on-base percentage plummeted to .305 (the lowest it's been since April 3). He also struck out in that game, meaning he'd whiffed in 15 of his first 16 games since returning from his initial DL stint in late April, and he entered Saturday 7-for-44 (.159) in May, without an extra-base hit.

The Sox are prepared for a low average and lots of strikeouts if that's the tradeoff for power, but in its absence Middlebrooks doesn't really bring much value to the lineup, especially when his defense is no better than average at the hot corner.

There are times he looks lost at the plate, particularly against sliders that trail down and away, and he's recently been straying outside the zone more than he had been early in the year, when his plate discipline appeared to be better.

When the Sox sent Middlebrooks back to Triple-A last year with a mission to improve that approach, they did so with his average at .201 after 185 plate appearances; after 82 plate appearances this season, the results don't suggest that demotion was particularly effective. And now he's dealing with another injury.

"He's expanding the zone up on some fastballs," Farrell said, "and with coverage of the plate away on some sliders ... there's been some swing and miss."

After doubling twice in April's final game he opened May 6-for-47 (.128), and that brought his on-base plus slugging to .597 for the season. Only five AL hitters with enough at-bats to qualify gave been worse, and further illustrative of the struggles Bradley is having at the plate, his strikeout rate of 29.4 percent is ninth-highest in the AL, ahead of the notorious Adam Dunn, and Red Sox team record holder Mike Napoli.

Bradley may deserve more lenience because of the excellent defense he brings to center field, and because without him the Sox don't really have another viable option to play that position every day (especially as Shane Victorino continues to be a health question). But at some point the Sox either need to see something from their young players. Or they need to act. If, after a championship, the Sox want to sit back and let their players learn on the job, then so be it. But if Boston's brass wants to try and separate itself from the rest of a flatly mediocre AL East, it can't stay this way. And it definitely can't wait until the July 31 trade deadline. Or else it's going to cost the Sox more games than just Friday's.

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Many armchair managers watching Friday night would've loved to see Bradley bunt in that aforementioned situation - but Farrell said he never considered a sacrifice there because he lacked confidence in the center fielder's ability to execute the call.

Bradley had been unsuccessful in all three sacrifice attempts this season, and in four seasons of pro ball he's been credited with only two sac bunts, both coming last season at Pawtucket. It's not a strategy the Red Sox rely on often, but it might've been a useful tool in that situation (given his struggles) had Bradley had it in his toolbox.

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Stat of the week: Pawtucket third baseman Garin Cecchini, 145 plate appearances into his Triple-A career, had a .400 on-base percentage through Friday. His OBP is .415 over parts of four minor-league seasons.

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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