NEW YORK – On the one hand, there is a reality that the Red Sox face with Clay Buchholz. The right-hander has not pitched since June 16 while recovering from a stress fracture in his lower back.
Would the Red Sox love to have Buchholz available as a rotation option, at a time when the medley of options they have behind Josh Beckett and Jon Lester represents, at best, a roll of the dice? Of course.
Is that possible? Of course not.
“It can’t [be possible],” said Sox manager Terry Francona of the idea that Buchholz could start. “He can only throw one, maybe two innings.”
And so, the Sox are trying to figure out whether Buchholz can be of any help at all, whether in the remainder of the regular season or, should the team get there, the playoffs. But if Buchholz is to help the Sox out of the bullpen, it would require something of a crash course that the pitcher himself doesn’t seem entirely convinced he can pass.
Buchholz, who was 6-3 with a 3.48 ERA in 14 starts this year when he landed on the disabled list, has appeared in 78 big league games. All but two of those appearances has come as a starter. The two relief outings, meanwhile, came with special circumstances.
In 2007, five days after Buchholz tossed a no-hitter in his second career start, he stayed on turn but was moved to relief as the Sox were trying both to manage his innings that year and to see whether he might be capable of working out of the bullpen. In that trial, Buchholz pitched three shutout innings of relief against the Orioles.
The next season, at a time when his confidence was shot and when he was nearing his demotion from the big leagues to Double-A, Buchholz allowed one run in one inning of relief work in a blowout loss to the Blue Jays. The session came on six days’ rest, after he’d been skipped in the rotation, and was meant in some ways to give him a renewed sense of comfort as he prepared to make his next – and, what proved to be his last – start in the majors in 2008.
In both cases, Buchholz was treated very much like a starter who happened to be making an appearance out of the bullpen. He had ample time to warm up, and his appearance essentially took place on a schedule.
Neither that experience, nor the two simulated games he’s thrown, has done much to prepare Buchholz for a meaningful relief role going forward. And so, it is with admitted uncertainty that Buchholz regards the idea that he can help the Sox as a reliever this year.
For starters, even though Buchholz has rebuilt his arm strength to the point where he threw one simulated outing of 32 pitches on Tuesday and another of 40 pitches on Friday, he acknowledges that such outings give little indication of what he might be able to do in meaningful games.
Buchholz wants to prove that he is ready to contribute in the postseason should his team make it there, yet he is also mindful that the pace of his return must be pushed if he is to prove to the Sox that he is worthy of a spot on a playoff roster.
“Not throwing for three months and then throwing twice and being in a major league game might be a little difficult,” Buchholz said, minutes before Francona announced that the right-hander’s next step would be to pitch in a big league game. “That’s the tough spot here. I’m sure they wouldn’t want to activate me [for the playoffs] without seeing live hitters in live games. I think that’s the one thing in the situation is trying to speed up everything and make sure I’m ready to go into a game and everything feels good in a game.”
The Sox have been encouraged by his stuff in the sessions, but that means little about how he might respond to actual game settings. The sense that he’s been working under artificial parameters was magnified by Friday’s session, in which Buchholz had to throw indoors due to the deluge at Yankee Stadium.
“The big leagues is different than anything else. The added stress of going against live hitters in the big leagues is different than anywhere else,” added Buchholz. “I would [like to pitch in a big league game], but I’m trying to stay away from hurting something else. I’d be going from throwing with no adrenaline throwing against our guys to trying to win a game. The stress of trying to win a game in the big leagues is another thing.”
And then, there is his prior experience. Buchholz suggested those two relief appearances in 2007 and 2008 offered little help for what might face him going forward this year.
“I wasn’t not healthy,” Buchholz said of those prior relief outings. “I didn’t miss a beat. They said we’ll give you ample time to get ready. Trying to get ready in the playoffs is a different story.
“If they need someone to pitch, they’ll get them up. They aren’t going to be able to predict two innings in advance because something else might happen, and then they’d just be wasting someone else to allow me to have enough time to get ready. I don’t think that’s the right choice. If we’ve already clinched, then we’d be able to do that. But I don’t think we can do that now because we need to win.
“It’d be weird,” he added. “If we had three weeks left in the season then I wouldn’t have any problem with it because I’d have time to get ready. Now that we’re down to a week left, and we need to win, coming out of a bullpen which I’ve only done once or twice in my career and that was three, four years ago, the routine’s going to be different. As much as I want it to be the same, it would be different.”
Indeed, Buchholz is accustomed to preparing for outings at his own pace. A starter’s routine is dictated by choice rather than the game situation. Whether the Sox could find a comfortable pace for Buchholz to prepare for his outings remains to be seen.
At the least, it is an experiment that the Sox must conduct in the coming days under imperfect circumstances. The team plans measures to protect the pitcher – for instance, his appearances would likely be limited to clean innings for which he had as much time to warm up as possible.
While Francona suggested that the next step for Buchholz was to pitch out of the bullpen in a game in Baltimore, the Sox may not have an ideal situation in which to use him. If the team’s postseason hopes are on the line, Buchholz seemed uncomfortable with the idea that he might be pressed suddenly into a game.
“If we’re trying to win and I’m warming up they would probably say, ‘Hey, can you get ready a little bit sooner than we want you to?’ I think it might throw everything off,” said Buchholz. “If we weren’t in a playoff [race], and we could lose a game, that’d be a different story. But we can’t lose a game.”
Moreover, within the context of a game, Buchholz noted that there was another transition to be made. The cat-and-mouse game of a starter represents a distinct difference from the adrenaline-infused entry from a bullpen.
“It’s fun [getting an adrenaline rush out of the bullpen], but that’s another thing. My mind is on using all my pitches, setting up hitters for the next at-bat,” said Buchholz. “You don’t get to do that out of the bullpen. It’s just two completely different positions. It’d be different.”
That difference has left Buchholz with a clear preference. He would rather pitch under circumstances that are known than to face the unknown.
While he is open to helping the Sox in any role that his health will permit, his preference would be to help the team as a starter, even if that meant throwing just a couple innings before leaving in favor of a long reliever such as Alfredo Aceves.
In the end, Buchholz will do what he is asked. But as of now, he appears to be approaching the idea that he could return to the club as a difference-maker out of the bullpen with considerable caution.
“In my mind, when I’m throwing, I’d like to start because that’s what I do. I think I’d be better as a starter than coming in in relief,” said Buchholz. “Ultimately, it’s the manager’s, team’s, organization’s decision. I’m sure we’ll sit down, and if I don’t feel comfortable doing it, I’m going to say, ‘I don’t think I’ll feel comfortable doing that.’ That’s where we’re at.
“But if I’m healthy,” he added, “I’m here to help the team win. If they think [the bullpen] is where I can do it, then that’s where I’m going to do it.”