For the Twins, the decision was straightforward.
When a rain delay exceeds 45 minutes, Minnesota pulls its pitcher from the game. It’s not a decision that’s subject to discretion. It’s policy.
And so, after the skies opened at 1:53 p.m., the Twins had a bright line as to when they would consider starter Brian Duensing’s day concluded.
“Forty-five minutes, like normal,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of how far into the rain delay the decision was made to change pitchers. “We just do what we do with our guys.”
Duensing’s day at Fenway was done. His Red Sox counterpart’s was not.
Clay Buchholz, improbably, incredibly, would return to the mound for the Red Sox. And not only was he a warm body standing on a pile of dirt – he was outstanding, turning in arguably his best performance of the 2011 season in leading his team to a 4-0 victory over Minnesota. (Recap.)
All the same, it was a nail-biting decision that the Sox faced as to whether to or not to have Buchholz return to the mound after a 127-minute rain delay. The right-hander had looked excellent while sailing through the first two innings of the game in just 26 pitches, and he returned to the mound for the top of the third with a 1-0 lead in hand.
But then came the rain. Initially, the expectation was that the rain delay would last roughly 45 minutes. That would not have been an issue – it would have been an easy call to send Buchholz to the mound whenever the top of the third arrived.
“Right when it started, they said it was going to be 45 minutes and I said, OK, I can definitely stay loose for 45 minutes. Got to 45 minutes and they said it was going to be another hour,” said Buchholz. “You know, it was different.”
With a second front backing the first – thus preventing the game from resuming at a time when conditions at Fenway were relatively dry – the delay persisted. That, in turn, led to unusual circumstances for Buchholz in his efforts to stay loose for a return to the mound.
It became a nail-biting question for the Sox as to whether they could keep Buchholz in the game. After all, the team typically would err on the side of caution. Certainly, in a minor league game in which the outcome was secondary to the well-being and development of the players, the approach would have been clear.
“They absolutely would not let me to do that in the minors,” Buchholz observed.
The Sox didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the health or well-being of their starter. At the same time, they recognized that the bullpen was ill-positioned to absorb pulling the right-hander after two innings.
Both of the potential long men had pitched the previous night, with Tim Wakefield logging 4 1/3 innings in his start and Alfredo Aceves backing him with 4 2/3 innings of relief. If there was any way that Buchholz could give more innings – perhaps even just two more frames – it would be an immense help.
Buchholz, too, understood that fact. And so, he made clear to the team that he was willing to do what was necessary to stay in the game.
The Sox recognized that they would have to keep Buchholz loose if they wanted him back in the game, and so they ended up having him throw in the batting cage behind the dugout (an area that did not exist until the 2005 season). He was not able to throw at quite the full 60-feet, 6-inches from a pitcher’s mound to the plate, but he was able to do enough to keep his arm warm.
“You never want it to go past two hours. That’s probably the max,” said pitching coach Curt Young. “You never like to do that. but I think Clay felt good about it and we felt good about it.
“He played catch actually four times in different segments, 10 minute rest, threw, 10 minute rest, threw, 15 minute rest, threw, and then he threw again after taking about 40 minutes off.”
Between the throwing and the stretching, it was enough for Buchholz to remain loose. The pitcher’s pre-delay outing hadn’t been long enough to take a toll. Every investigation by trainer Mike Reinold as to whether Buchholz could stay in the game met with a positive response.
The Sox were mindful of a couple of things in the decision. First, there was the fact that, thanks to a scheduled off-day on Thursday, Buchholz will have an extra day of rest between starts.
“The fact that he’s going to have 5 days rest came into play,” said Young. “Definitely.”
And then, there is the fact that Buchholz is a loose-limbed individual for whom pitching comes somewhat more effortlessly than his peers. To be sure, he puts in the work between starts to maintain his readiness to pitch for the long haul, but unlike the rest of the Sox starters, he does not need to ice after outings.
“He’s got an arm with a lot of life in it,” said Young. “No doubt.”
There was a last test. After Buchholz threw his final indoor session – about five minutes before the tarp was pulled – he jogged back onto the field and threw from flat ground before progressing to the bullpen mound. And there, he felt fine, thus ensuring his re-entry into the game.
Even so, it was fair to wonder what Buchholz would be able to do when he returned to the mound, and how locked into the game circumstance he would be.
It was Buchholz’ mental state, rather than his physical one, that Jonathan Papelbon wondered about. In 2008, the Sox closer had once entered a game in the eighth inning against the Yankees, warmed up and then had a rain delay leave him in a state of suspended animation for the next 131 minutes before returning to the mound and blowing away New York hitters for the final four outs. He was aware that Buchholz was attempting something with a very high degree of difficulty.
“I thought about that,” said Papelbon. “It’s very challenging. It’s mentally tougher than anything. You’ve just got to try as best as you can to keep your mind on the task at hand.”
Still, Buchholz enjoyed an advantage over what the closer might have experienced, according to Young.
“A starter prepares that way for two or three hours before his game,” said Young. “Him sitting around is really like him getting into the mentality of starting the game over again.”
Yet when Buchholz took the mound, there was one interesting difference. The Sox were not going to let him go too deep into the game. They were simply asking Buchholz to help them bridge to a more reasonable area of the game, where the bullpen might be positioned to take over without being stretched thin.
And so, knowing that he was on a dwindling pitch count clock, Buchholz was relentless in attacking the strike zone. He fired eight pitches – seven strikes – to sail through the third inning. He needed just nine pitches – all strikes – to get through the fourth. He was throwing everything – fastball, changeup, cutter and especially an excellent curveball – for strikes after returning to the mound.
“He just kept us off balance,” said Twins manager Gardenhire. “We really didn’t get many good swings against him.”
Buchholz returned for the fifth, when his command started to falter after a leadoff strikeout. He issued a walk, then fell behind 3-1. But with the Twins attempting a hit and run, Luke Hughes lined a ball that seemed destined for left field; but Jed Lowrie dove to his left to spear it, then hopped up and threw to first to complete the double play.
“He actually went back out there and I thought his touch and feel on his pitches was better,” said manager Terry Francona observed with some amazement. “I thought today was the best I’ve seen, I really did. Now I know it was kind of a disjointed effort but I thought today was by far the best.”
That was it for Buchholz. Having logged the requisite five innings, in which he allowed just two hits and one walk while striking out six, he was in line for the win. He felt like he could have kept going – he’d only thrown 61 pitches on the day – but for the Sox, what he’d done was already more than enough. Even his opponents were left to admire the effort.
“Made me look bad,” kidded Twins starter Duensing.
When the Sox emerged with a 4-0 win nearly five hours after Buchholz had thrown his first pitch of the day, it was with a sense of profound respect and appreciation for what the starter had done.
This was the sort of game that defines front-of-the-rotation starters. It was evidence of Buchholz understanding the dynamic of a pitching staff, and what he could do in order not only to give the Sox their best chance to win, but also to spare a bullpen a potentially disastrous toll.
Buchholz not only positioned the Sox to win on Saturday, but also kept the pitching staff intact for Sunday’s game as well. While he will be monitored carefully in the coming days to make sure that the effort did not take any toll on him, it was a remarkable effort that was recognized throughout the Sox clubhouse.
“That’s tough to sit on the bench for two hours and to go back out there. It’s tough enough when you have to sit on the bench in a long inning. But he wanted the ball, he went back out there and pitched great,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “We needed it. Buck wanted the ball regardless and proved why.”