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ATL@BOS: Middlebrooks falls a triple shy of the cycle

BOSTON -- Will Middlebrooks made another strong case to remain in the Red Sox's lineup and Franklin Morales proved his worth once more as a starter on Saturday night.

Middlebrooks homered, drove in two runs and had three hits to push the Sox past the Braves, 8-4, at Fenway Park. Boston improved to 8-2 in its past last 10 games and moved to 4-1 on its current nine-game homestand.

Morales made his second straight start in place of the injured Josh Beckett, stifling the Braves over six innings. The former Boston reliever allowed three runs on seven hits, striking out eight against one walk and throwing 86 pitches (62 strikes).

He built off Sunday's five-inning, nine-strikeout performance vs. the Cubs and won his first game as a Red Sox starter.

"Right now I feel more confident in myself and I feel like it's a good opportunity for me to be a starter," said Morales, who began his career as a starter with the Rockies before moving to the bullpen. "When I was younger I tried to do too much. Now I don't try to do everything. I'm letting go of my fastball and I believe in what I've got right now."

Did Morales earn another start with his outing on Saturday?

"Yes, most assuredly," said manager Bobby Valentine. "For him to maintain his velocity now twice is very impressive and that's more than I expected."

In his third straight start at third base, Middlebrooks fell a triple shy of the cycle. He's making it tough on the Red Sox to find a spot for Kevin Youkilis these days. The two had been splitting time recently, but Middlebrooks has outperformed the veteran of late.

"I come here every day and prepare like I'm playing, even if I'm not," said Middlebrooks, who is hitting .331 with nine homers and 33 RBIs in 40 games. "I'm ready to go every day."

The rookie has been tearing the cover off the ball during the homestand, going 10-for-14 with three homers, three doubles and nine RBIs in five games. He's had an extra-base hit in five straight games, the second time he's done that this year.

"I'm just comfortable. I feel like I'm in a groove, feel good," he said. "Seeing the ball well. It's pretty simple. I'm just seeing it and hitting it right now. Just getting good pitches to hit and not missing them."

On Saturday, Middlebrooks had an RBI double in the first, a solo home run over the Green Monster to lead off the third and a single in the fifth.

"Like all good hitters he's seeing the ball well right now," Valentine said. "A lot of time those home run hitters bunch them [together] and the last thing you want to do is get him out of the lineup when he's hitting home runs."

While Middlebrooks is convincing Valentine to keep him in the lineup, Morales has made a seamless transition out of the bullpen.

Morales looked shaky to start the game, though. The first three batters reached, including an RBI single from Brian McCann. But the left-hander rebounded and retired 11 of the next 12, striking out six.

"After that inning I had confidence back, threw my fastball for strikes and tried to make my first pitch a strike and use both sides of the plate," Morales said.

The Braves didn't score again until the fifth, when Jason Heyward reached on an error by first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and scored on an RBI single by Michael Bourn.

"We should have gotten more out of the first than we did," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "We really had a chance to set the tone for the ballgame and have them play catch-up and hopefully give our young guy some breathing room. Unfortunately we only got the one and they come out in the top of the first really feeling good about things, as opposed to being down two or three runs."

Jones crushed an RBI double in the sixth to make it 6-3. Morales escaped the inning without further damage and Scott Atchison replaced him to start the seventh.

Atchison quickly got into trouble, allowing one run on two hits before he got an out. Andrew Miller relieved him with two men on base and got McCann to line into a double play to first to escape the threat.

"Andrew Miller came in and McCann is as tough a hitter as they have in the lineup, and he got him out in front on a breaking ball off the end of the bat," Valentine said. "I didn't think we were going to get that kind of double play to get out of it, but it worked perfectly."

One night after Braves starter Jair Jurrjens held them to a lone run, the Red Sox pounded out 14 hits and feasted on Atlanta pitching. Starter Randall Delgado allowed four runs on six hits in 1 1/3 innings.

Dustin Pedroia broke out of a 9-for-62 (.145) slump with three hits, his most in a game since May 11 vs. the Indians. The second baseman belted a two-run double in the second to go along with two singles and a walk.

"When it rains it pours, you go from cold to real hot. It's coming," Pedroia said. "The last few days I've swung the bat good and I just didn't get any hits. That's the tough part to deal with mentally, when you have good at-bats and quality at-bats and don't get any hits. You just have to know that they are coming and they will. Once you find it you just take off."

Gonzalez, Mike Aviles and Cody Ross each had two hits, with Gonzalez adding an RBI. Ross doubled twice and drove in one. Daniel Nava contributed a two-run single in the seventh for insurance.

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