The Middlebrooks muddle

photo Jason Miller/Getty Images

Jan-Christian Sorensen
Contributing Writer

Prior to 2004, Red Sox fans often traded in a devalued, hindsight-based currency of What-Ifs:

What if Frazee hadn’t hocked Ruth to the Yankees?
What if Pesky had been a split-second earlier on the relay throw as Slaughter made his Mad Dash?
What if Conigliaro had been able to get out of the way of that Jack Hamilton pitch?
What if the wind had been blowing in when Bucky (ahem) Dent got a hold of that Mike Torrez pitch?
What if Grady Little had lifted Pedro before Posada came up to bat in Game Seven?

Now, the Nation has another quandary that came to light as the Sox played the AL West-leading Rangers: What If Adrian Beltre was still holding down the hot corner for Boston instead of Will Middlebrooks?

Beltre played only one season in Boston, but it was memorable, and a monster: 189 hits. 49 doubles. 28 homers. 102 RBI. A .321 average. A Silver Slugger and an All-Star nod. Highlight-reel diving snags. Home runs on bended knee.

But Beltre became expendable when the Sox signed long-coveted raker Adrian Gonzalez to play first and moved Youkilis back over to the left side of the infield, and every Sox fan knows how that move ultimately panned out — with Gonzalez as the king’s ransom paid to salary-dump Carl Crawford and exile Josh Beckett to Los Angeles.

When the 6-4, 200-lb Texas native Middlebrooks got his chance to break into the bigs last year he immediately set the Fenway faithful aflame with a 15-home run, 54-RBI performance in just 75 games, before missing the end of the season with a broken right wrist in August.

For once, it was an exciting, re-invigorating What If? Nobody cared about Beltre’s big, one-off season. Youkilis, almost instantly, became an afterthought.

After two games playing against Beltre in Texas this weekend, however, the gulf between the two third basemen — what was, and what is — seems more glaring than ever.

During Friday night’s 7-0 loss in the opener, Beltre went four-for-five with three RBIs and a run scored. Middlebrooks was 0-for-3 with a strikeout.

Saturday, en route to a 3-1 Red Sox loss, Beltre went one-for-three with a run scored. Middlebrooks went one-for-four but cost the Sox more than he contributed, committing two errors. One of those gaffes allowed Beltre to reach base in the first inning. His second error, in the fourth, came after Craig Gentry stroked one his way and Middlebrooks made a low throw to Mike Napoli that allowed both Beltre and A.J. Pierzynski to come home.

Adrian Beltre's shadow loomed large over the Boston-Texas series this weekend
"It was one of those in-betweeners and I felt, a guy with speed like that, I need to go get that," Middlebrooks said. "But at the same time, it's going to be an in-between hop, so I wanted to at least give myself a chance to get him out. I wanted to get rid of it as quick as I could and I made a bad throw."

Before Sunday's game,  Middlebrooks — 3-for-19 over his last five games, with zero RBI and a .195 plate average — was relegated to riding the pine when his team faced Yu Darvish. Pedro Ciriaco supplanted him on the diamond and went 1-for-3.

On Sunday, Beltre delivered a huge hit in the bottom of the ninth to drive home the winning run and complete the three-game sweep of the visiting Sox.

"I'm fine. I know I'm a good player," Middlebrooks said Sunday, of his slump. "I know it's been a tough couple of weeks, tough couple of days, especially being home (in Texas) and everybody is here. It's tough to play like that. I know it'll get better. It's just a rough patch. Keep my confidence. I know I'm going to get just as hot as I am cold right now."

Middlebrooks indeed got off to a hot start this season, posting four homers and six RBIs in his first six games for a .320 average (although three of those homers and four of those RBI came in one memorable game against Toronto) but that number quickly plummeted, hitting a nadir of .165 in an 0-for-4 outing against Oakland April 24. Since then, he’s only hopped the sunny side of The Mendoza Line twice.

Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington was quick to downplay Middlebrooks’ scuffles during an interview with NESN’s Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy on Sunday: “He’s struggled a little bit, obviously,” said Cherington. “We all see the ability that’s there and he’s going to be a really good player for a long time… He’s working at it and he’ll get out of it.”

It’s far too early in the season — not to mention his career — to say Middlebrooks will never be as good as his predecessor. Beltre has been a fixture in the Major Leagues for 14 years, while Middlebrooks is closing in on his first full season. It’s like comparing Shea Hillenbrand with Brooks Robinson.

But after having seen the two third basemen square off in the first two games of the series, it’s pretty clear to everyone in the Nation that Middlebrooks has some Texas-sized shoes yet to fill.

Twitter: jan_doh