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His prospects are good

Prime opportunity for Middlebrooks

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 3, 2012
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Could Will Middlebrooks’s life be any better?

He is 23 years old, engaged to a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, has hit .333 with nine home runs at Triple A this season, and Wednesday night came the cherry on top: He made his major league debut at Fenway Park with his parents, Tom and Julie, watching their son go 2 for 3 with a stolen base and a walk.

These are the moments he’ll remember all of his life.

It’s the innocent time before players become hardened and jaded, before they lose sight of where they came from. Middlebrooks is still in that “awe’’ stage - when he’s in Toledo one minute, and getting a call from Boston general manager Ben Cherington telling him he’s coming to the majors.

He’s still overwhelmed, and said that “in the first two innings, I was in La-La land,’’ before realizing he needed to treat it “just like another game.’’

“I’ve been waiting for this for 23 years,’’ Middlebrooks said before the game. “It’s pretty exciting.

“I’m just going to try to soak it all in, have fun, and just play the way I know how to play. It’s an honor to be here, it really is, and I’ll never lose sight of that.’’

There have been a few impressive young players making their way to the majors this season. Angels outfielder Mike Trout got a taste last season, and he was recalled recently when the team released Bobby Abreu. Bryce Harper, considered one of the best prospects since Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez, hasn’t disappointed with the Nationals.

Could Middlebrooks be Boston’s guy?

He got the call because Kevin Youkilis was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a lower back strain.

Middlebrooks was lighting up the International League and playing excellent defense at third base. The 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound righthanded hitter is Boston’s third baseman of the future.

Youkilis isn’t about to give up the job. But sometimes players just take it and run with it. Middlebrooks has the chance to do that.

This year, Middlebrooks was supposed to stay in Pawtucket for a full season, then perhaps have been a September call-up. In the offseason, with Youkilis entering the option year of his contract, the Red Sox could have a decision to make to either commit to Middlebrooks or pick up Youkilis’s $13 million option.

The Red Sox received a few inquiries about Middlebrooks over the winter but never came close to trading him.

“Excited to see him out there,’’ said Cherington. “To see where he came from as a high school kid and a kid in Texas who was a little bit more of a football player in high school and hadn’t played a lot of baseball until now, it’s an exciting day for him and an exciting day for the organization. It’s a credit to our scouting and development.

“This was not a guy who was a first-round pick. He was not at the top of everybody’s draft boards. He was a talented kid who has a great work ethic. A smart kid, athletic, works really hard to improve in all aspects of the game.

“He’s a big part of our future and for now will fill in for Kevin for a little while.’’

Despite being a fifth-round pick in the 2007 draft out of Liberty Eylau High School in Texas, Middlebrooks has been a top prospect for a while. It seems once he gets acclimated at a certain level, he excels. His batting average has been rising: from .254 at short-season Single A Lowell, to .262 at Single A Greenville, to .275 at Single A Salem, to .302 at Double A Portland.

Middlebrooks hit .161 in 16 games at the end of last season at Pawtucket but started out well this season.

Scouts believe he could have used more time to work on hitting curveballs and changeups, but what young hitter doesn’t have some degree of difficulty with that?

A terrific high school quarterback, he turned down a football scholarship to Texas A&M - and as the son of a football coach, that was a tough decision.

In the course of his first instructional league, he wondered whether he had made the right choice. He was a shortstop then and saw quicker, faster players playing that position. He was moved to third as he began growing taller and more muscular.

He also started identifying pitches faster. The quicker he picked up the ball, the better he got. And that process has to continue in the majors, where he’ll see more off-speed stuff than he’s ever seen.

His first major league plate appearance was successful. He drew a four-pitch walk off Oakland righty Brandon McCarthy. With Marlon Byrd batting, Middlebrooks stole second base, beating Kurt Suzuki’s throw (“I don’t think I’ve ever run harder in my life,’’ he said). Middlebrook’s first major league hit was an infield single, a nubber to third, and he thought, “I wished I got a real hit.’’

Then came the real hit - an opposite-field double in the seventh inning against McCarthy.

“He works away and I got a good pitch to hit,’’ Middlebrooks said.

In spring training, Middlebrooks was all ears around guys like Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, and he hit it off with Youkilis even though he may someday take his position. The support continued from the veterans on Wednesday.

“These guys welcomed me with open arms,’’ said Middlebrooks.

“It’s a good opportunity for him to come out here and play at this level,’’ said Youkilis. “It’s going to be an exciting time for him to go out there and play. He’ll remember this moment the rest of his life.

“I was telling him, ‘Don’t try to do too much, just try and understand that you’ve played this game your whole life. This is another level, but you can play at this level.’

“He’s a great guy and a great player and hopefully he can help this team win.’’

His body type reminds you of Evan Longoria, but Middlebrooks doesn’t like comparisons.

“I’ve never tried to compare myself,’’ he said. “Be my own player and do my own thing, use the whole field and take what they give me and use my experience.’’

With Youkilis on the disabled list, Middlebrooks has about two weeks of playing time coming to him. He has a chance to make Boston’s decision on a future third baseman an easy one.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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