March 03, 2015

PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) For the first time in more than a year, it doesn't hurt when Will Middlebrooks swings.

Now in San Diego, a healthy Middlebrooks looks to revitalize a career that went from a sure thing at third base in Boston to an injury- and strikeout-filled two years in which he clashed with the Red Sox before being traded.

''It was tough,'' Middlebrooks said Tuesday. ''It was a process of learning what I can play through and what I couldn't. My mentality is if I can go at all, I'm going to try to play. And I feel like that kind of played against me last year.''

While the Red Sox were going through a miserable 2012 season, Middlebrooks was a bright spot. The two-sport star who turned down a football scholarship at Texas A&M drove in 34 runs and hit nine homers in his first 41 big league games. His play led the Red Sox to trade Kevin Youkilis and declare Middlebrooks their starting third baseman.

Middlebrooks was Boston's opening-day starter at third the past two seasons, but he kept losing the job. There were wrist, back, calf, finger and hand injuries. He was shuttled to and from the minors as his average, bat speed and confidence plummeted.

While he won a championship ring in 2013, he lost his starting job and had only two at-bats in the World Series. He was best known for being called for interference that allowed St. Louis to score the winning run in Game 3.

Things got worse last year. He hit just .191 with 70 strikeouts in 215 major league at-bats as he said he rushed to play despite lingering pain in his right hand.

''I learned my lesson. I learned how to take care of myself a little better,'' Middlebrooks said. ''Now I know, but unfortunately I learned the hard way.''

While Middlebrooks was far from 100 percent, the Red Sox wanted to evaluate him over the final months. They also wanted him to play winter ball. Middlebrooks refused.

Boston then signed free agent Pablo Sandoval, and Middlebrooks was quickly traded to the Padres.

''I don't care,'' Middlebrooks said when asked if declining to play winter ball led to his trade. ''My biggest thing was getting healthy. And if I was going to play winter ball and get 100 at-bats and then not be healthy at the beginning of this year, it's kind of pointless. I knew I needed to get healthy.''

Middlebrooks said it wasn't until January that the lingering pain went away. Now he has a chance to rekindle his once-promising career as he competes with Yangervis Solarte for the starting third base job with the new-look Padres.

''It's huge going out knowing I can get my hands through the fastball inside,'' Middlebrooks said. ''I can wait a little bit longer. I don't have to cheat on fastballs to hit them now. That's huge for my game.''

The 26-year-old Middlebrooks will also get some work at first base this spring as a possible way to get his bat in the lineup more.

''His swing is powerful. Lot of power to all fields,'' Padres manager Bud Black said. ''We saw what he did in 2012 before he got injured. . We think where he is age-wise, there's a lot of potential.''

It's been a wild couple of years for Middlebrooks, whose much-publicized relationship with Jenny Dell led to her departure as a Red Sox television reporter before she landed a job at CBS. The two are now engaged as Middlebrooks looks to turn things around 3,000 miles from Boston.

''Everyone goes through injuries. Everyone goes through struggles,'' Middlebrooks said. ''And that was my time.

''I'm in a really good place health-wise right now.''

NOTES: Black said newly acquired OFs Matt Kemp and Justin Upton will play in the Padres' exhibition opener Wednesday against Seattle. LHP Jason Lane will start. . Andrew Cashner starts Thursday against the Mariners. . Black said RHP Casey Kelly (groin) is scheduled to throw a bullpen side session on Friday.

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