BOSTON -- The outfield isn't completely healthy yet, but it's to the point that manager Bobby Valentine has enough options to keep Adrian Gonzalez where he belongs -- at first base.
So that leaves Valentine with a near daily decision now at the hot corner between veteran Kevin Youkilis and hot rookie Will Middlebrooks.
For Friday night's contest against the Braves, Valentine chose Middlebrooks for the second straight game, marking perhaps the first time since Youkilis became an everyday player in 2006 that he's been a healthy scratch two days in a row.
Valentine said that Youkilis is handling the situation as well as can be expected.
"He doesn't necessarily totally agree with it, he doesn't wake up in the morning and hope that's the case, but I think being the professional person that Kevin is, he understands it," Valentine said.
Middlebrooks came off the bench Wednesday night and hit a two-run homer. He started on Thursday and had three hits and four RBIs, including a game-tying two-run shot in the bottom of the eighth.
In 142 at-bats this season, Youkilis is hitting .225 with four homers, 13 RBIs, a .311 on-base percentage and a .359 slugging percentage. Middlebrooks had 136 at-bats entering Friday's action and was hitting .316 with eight homers, 31 RBIs, a .352 on-base percentage and a .551 slugging percentage.
Is it simply a matter of playing the hot hand these days?
"Yes," Valentine said. "Being I [usually] say no when you ask me that question, today I'm riding the hot hand. Tomorrow might not be the case, and I always reserve the right to change my mind."
Translation: This is a difficult situation for Valentine and Youkilis. The player who seems the least impacted by it is Middlebrooks, who just keeps on hitting.
Youkilis and Middlebrooks have a good working relationship that started back in Spring Training.
"He's been awesome," Middlebrooks said of Youkilis. "He's helped me out so much, man -- not just baseball, but off the field, how to handle everything."
With a little over a month before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, it's certainly possible Youkilis, who is in the last year of his contract, could be moved in a deal at some point.
In the meantime, Valentine will keep juggling as best he can.
Bard moving back to bullpen for rest of season
BOSTON -- Right-hander Daniel Bard, who tried to transition to the starting rotation in Spring Training and the first couple of months of the regular season, told reporters in Pawtucket, R.I., on Friday that he will return to the bullpen once he returns to the big leagues.
After going 5-6 with a 5.24 ERA, Bard was optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket on June 5.
All of his stints at Pawtucket have been short ones, leading to speculation he could be headed back to the bullpen. Bard confirmed that Friday.
"The feeling of everyone I've talked to, and the way I feel myself, is that I can be a good starter," Bard said. "I know I can be a good starter, but I know I'm already a great reliever. Maybe that's what I was meant to do, so just try and embrace it from here on out."
The decision was essentially a mutual one, although Bard and the team came to it independently.
"We essentially reached the conclusions independently and came together and talked about it," said general manager Ben Cherington. "We reached the same conclusion. The primary factors were that for 2012 we need as many guys to impact the big league team as we can. We felt as we get toward the end of June the best chance to do that would be in the bullpen for this year."
Bard is looking forward to returning to the role he excelled in for three seasons.
"I've never seen him up close and personal, but he's had some great success being a reliever and that's where feels like he'll be able to get back here the quickest and help us win," said manager Bobby Valentine.
There's no timetable on when Bard will be recalled by the Red Sox. In five games for Pawtucket, he has a 7.36 ERA.
"He's made progress," Cherington said. "He's in a more consistent position with his delivery, more consistent arm slot, better finish with his fastball. He's throwing the fastball through the catcher with a four-seam finish, and the breaking ball has been more consistent, with typically his breaking ball playing off his fastball. Not every outing has been perfect, but he's going in the right direction and those are the things he continues to get locked in on. He's trending in a good direction."
Despite slump, Pedroia staying in two-hole
BOSTON -- After the slumping Dustin Pedroia went 0-for-4 in Friday's 4-1 loss to the Braves, he received a vote of confidence from manager Bobby Valentine, who said he doesn't plan on moving the second baseman out of the two-hole.
"There's been a lot of consideration, but I think [Pedroia getting hot] is right around the corner," Valentine said.
Since returning on June 5 from a right thumb injury, Pedroia is hitting .145 (9-for-62).
He has gone 130 at-bats without a home run. Pedroia is hitting .260 on the season with five homers and 26 RBIs.
In Pedroia's third at-bat on Friday, he took a good swing but flied out to deep right.
He hit a hard grounder to short to end a rally in the eighth.
"Today he actually said he felt like [the injury] is over and it probably did take three weeks, plus," said Valentine. "And I thought his swings tonight were pretty good. The ball he hit to right field was one of the [first] balls he hit to right field in a long time. They're pitching him tough. He hasn't gotten those pitches he can really drive, he's battling. He'll get hot -- hotter than a firecracker."
Atchison pitching his case for All-Star nod
BOSTON -- Even in the closing weeks of Spring Training, Scott Atchison was merely trying to make the team. Now it's not ludicrous to suggest that the right-hander should be considered for the American League's All-Star team.
Atchison has been as effective as any setup man in the game this season, posting a 1.17 ERA in 29 games.
The righty went two innings for the win on Thursday.
It's always challenging for a reliever who doesn't close to become an All-Star, but Atchison has put himself in the running.
"I think he'll get mentioned," said manager Bobby Valentine. "I think he should get attention and mention. If you hit against him, you'd vote for him. I'd bet that."
Atchison had a career ERA of 4.09 ERA in 113 appearances entering the season. What has clicked for him this year?
"I don't know. I'm just trying to be the same pitcher I've always been -- throw strikes, get ahead and hopefully get some soft contact," said Atchison. "It's been working. [Catchers Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach] have done a great job of keeping guys off-balance and I've been following their lead, whatever they put down, kind of go with it. They've got a real good feel for that, and so I credit them for a lot of that.
"Obviously I'm making good pitches. I feel like if I make a bad one, I get away with it right now. Keep going with that and see where it takes me."
Crawford set for Minors action Saturday
BOSTON -- Left fielder Carl Crawford returned to Florida on Friday in preparation for his Minor League rehab assignment, which starts Saturday with a Gulf Coast League game.
Crawford will serve as the designated hitter on Saturday and progress to some outfield action shortly thereafter.
Essentially, Crawford is starting Spring Training.
"His health will determine a lot of his progress," said manager Bobby Valentine. "Then it's also baseball. He has to feel good about playing baseball. That's what Spring Training is usually for."
Crawford had left wrist surgery in the offseason and was diagnosed with a sprained UCL in his left elbow in April. Valentine has yet to manage him, but he is looking forward to doing so.
"I want him to be healthy," Valentine said. "If he's healthy, I'll be happy. Then I'll start getting excited after he's healthy and playing the game of baseball."