PAWTUCKET — The PawSox locker room has looked like a bus station this week, with players coming down I-95 from Portland or heading to Boston.
Friday’s transit report led with the news of third baseman Will Middlebrooks’s promotion to Pawtucket from Portland. Middlebrooks effectively replaces Ryan Lavarnway, who joined Boston’s lineup on Thursday.
“We played in Reading (Pa.) last night,” Middlebrooks said after arriving in the Pawtucket locker room around 5 p.m. on Friday, just in time to serve as designated hitter for the 7 p.m. game with Columbus. “We drove back to Portland and then this morning I went to sleep for a couple hours. My phone rang around 10 a.m. I think I missed the call the first time. They told me I had to drive to Pawtucket. I ran into a little traffic, a little rain. It wasn’t too bad.”
Middlebrooks, a 22-year-old prospect who hit .306 with Portland with 18 homers and 80 RBI, was greeted by several of his new teammates. After putting his equipment bag away, the Texas native reported to manager Arnie Beyeler for a meeting.
“I just told him to relax and get comfortable,” Beyeler said. “You shake his hand and tell him to go play baseball. The people down below (in Portland) tell us he is swinging the bat well. I’m looking forward to seeing him play.”
Middlebrooks has been touted as a potential replacement in Boston for veteran third baseman Kevin Youkilis. In fact, Youkilis mentioned the possibility last week in a conversation with ESPNBoston.com’s Joe McDonald, predicting Middlebrooks might end up taking over at third base when Youk’s contract with Boston expires following the 2012 season.
“It’s nice to have someone like that get behind you,” Middlebrooks, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs 200 pounds, said when the same Joe McDonald mentioned those comments to the newest PawSox player during Friday’s informal conference with the media.
Middlebrooks has a long ways to go before replacing Youkilis, and he knows it.
“The biggest thing I am trying to do is be consistent,” he said, speaking the organizational philosophy that is pounded into Red Sox prospects from the moment they sign a professional contract.
Drafted in the fifth round by Boston back in 2007, the Greenville, Texas native has improved every year in the minor leagues. He hit .256 with Lowell in 2008. He batted .265 and .276 during his next two seasons in A ball with Greenville and Salem. Middlebrooks stroked 12 homers at Salem and then continued that power surge with Portland this season, knocking out 18 homers in 96 games with the Sea Dogs.
Middlebrooks goes from last place to first place by joining the PawSox, who were tied for the top in the International League North with Lehigh Valley heading into Friday night’s game.
“We had a tough month in May,” the lanky infielder said of his time in Portland. “We’ve been playing pretty well since then but this is going to be fun, playing for a team in first place.”
The starting pitcher for Pawtucket on Friday night also took a circuitous route to McCoy Stadium. Lefthander Greg Smith pitched for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre from mid-June until last week, posting a 3-3 mark with a 4.84 earned run average in 13 games (10 starts). Smith pitched in the big leagues with Oakland in 2008, compiling a 7-16 record with a 4.16 ERA in 32 games. He went 1-2 with Colorado in 2010.
“I think he pitched the first game of a doubleheader last week with Scranton,” Beyeler said when someone asked him what he knew about the lefthander. “We’ve seen him pitch before. We’re hoping to get six or seven innings out of him tonight.”
Beyeler has been hesitant to speak with the media about Pawtucket’s playoff chances, knowing full well that his team’s roster can change in a flash.
“I just answer the phone and write down what they tell me to do,” the even-keeled manager said. “That’s how we roll.”
EXTRA BASES: Middlebrooks hit three homers in an injury rehab stint with Lowell at the end of June, giving him 21 homers in all for the 2011 season. He strained his right triceps muscle and spent 15 days on the disabled list … The PawSox have made 58 player moves this season, just six short of last year’s total. The franchise record is 70 set in both 1995 and 2006.