DETROIT -- In the past, the milestone of 200 innings has been a goal for Clay Buchholz. This year, it may be a necessity.
The Red Sox’ approach to their roster this offseason was predicated on the notion that the team would have a solid front three in its rotation. The trio of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz, manager Ben Cherington said on more than one occasion during the winter, was sufficiently talented to permit the team to take some calculated gambles with the back of its rotation.
But that formula is already showing some cracks. While Jon Lester, even without his best stuff, was terrific on Opening Day, Josh Beckett followed on Saturday with a disastrous outing, allowing seven runs on seven hits and five homers in just 4 2/3 innings in the Sox’ 10-0 loss to the Tigers.
Beckett’s poor line, combined with diminished stuff (a fastball that was mostly 90-92 mph), will do little to convince anyone that his quarrelsome right thumb -- the digit that compelled him to see two doctors in the days leading up to the start of the season -- is not a concern.
After all, the right-hander acknowledged on Wednesday that he might eventually require surgery for the appendage at some point, just not in the short term. That reality made it somewhat difficult to accept at face value Beckett’s insistence on Saturday that “the thumb is not an issue,” and that the bad outing was instead a byproduct of nothing more than poor location.
Generally, there are three potential indications of a pitcher whose effectiveness is impaired by a physical injury: diminished velocity, diminished movement and diminished command. Beckett demonstrated all three on Saturday, to the point where manager Bobby Valentine and pitching coach Bob McClure couldn’t tell whether the starter was throwing changeups or cutters, and where Valentine felt compelled to ask Beckett about his thumb both during and after his outing.
Every time he was asked about the digit, whether by Sox officials or by reporters, Beckett -- who said that the thumb issue is one he was dealing with in spring training, when he had a 0.95 ERA and a major league-best .117 batting average against -- remained resolute about the cause of his struggles.
“Too many pitches in the middle of the plate," said Beckett. "You can’t miss down the middle of the plate to these guys. It’s a good team. Good lineup. You can’t throw balls down the middle to most big league hitters, but especially these guys.”
Perhaps Beckett can be taken at his word and it was just a really bad day at the office, a flat start to the new season, a start in which he yielded more runs than in any outing of the 2011 season. A year ago, it is worth noting, Jon Lester had no life, movement or command on Opening Day against the Rangers, but then started dominating in his next start. So, there is such a thing as simply having a bad start.
But until Beckett throws well, there will be questions, as evidenced by the fact that Valentine himself felt compelled to ask the pitcher about his health. And if there is uncertainty about Beckett’s ability to be healthy or productive going forward, then the Sox’ offseason blueprint -- find creative solutions for the back of the rotation while leaning on the front three -- already has some issues.
After all, a year ago, the back injury to Buchholz commenced a crumbling of the foundation of the rotation that ultimately led to the Sox’ epic September collapse. Now, at a time when there are questions about Beckett -- perhaps short-lived ones, but questions nonetheless thanks to the Fort Myers-to-San Antonio-to-Cleveland-to-Detroit itinerary he traveled from spring training to the start of the regular season -- the Sox need Buchholz to serve as a stabilizing beam.
The good news for the Sox is that Buchholz got through his spring showing no ill effects of having missed the final three and a half months of the 2011 season while dealing with a stress fracture in his back. During the spring, if there were any question marks about his physical condition, they were answered.
“There were days this spring where the day after I pitched I felt better than the day I did pitch. That’s definitely a good thing in my mind, knowing that everything is underneath you,” said Buchholz. “Back’s healthy, arm’s healthy, arm got stronger as spring went on and my legs were underneath me the whole time. I think those are some key points to look at.”
Moreover, Buchholz said that he has been assured that there is little risk of a recurrence of his back injury. From that, Buchholz is able to draw reassurance and to pitch without fear for his physical wellbeing.
Health to start the year? Check.
That ruddy outlook, in turn, allows for the attention about Buchholz to turn to his pitches. And on that front, too, Buchholz felt that he emerged from the spring with the tools that have allowed him to forge a 2.70 ERA over the last two seasons, a mark that is just behind Angels ace Jered Weaver for the lowest in the American League since the start of the 2010 season (min. 250 innings).
Buchholz features a potentially devastating pitch mix, a mid-90s fastball, a tremendous two-seamer that allowed him to become pitch efficient, a changeup that ranks among the best in the game, a curveball that can be a plus pitch, a cutter…
For Buchholz, effectiveness begins with fastball command so that he can set up his secondary pitches. He felt as if that element was present in his build-up to the season, something that was evident in his low walks total (three, compared to 15 strikeouts, in 20 2/3 Grapefruit League innings), a priority for him during the exhibition season.
Beyond that, the changeup is a pitch that Buchholz believes is always in his pocket as an out-pitch. With both the fastball and changeup in place, Buchholz was pleased to see the return of another off-speed offering.
“Everything was good,” Buchholz said of his pitch mix. “I definitely felt my curveball this year, this spring, was definitely better than it was even during seasons in the past. It was a pitch I was able to throw 2-2 counts and 1-2 counts and 0-0 counts to get a strike. It’s definitely a pitch I wanted to make sure I had in the repertoire that I could go to if I needed it.”
Buchholz feels that he has a full complement of weapons as he prepares for his first start since his back injury became too much to endure in his 14th and final start of the 2011 season last June 16. As such, he was calm the day before his first regular season game in 10 months.
He does not feel anxiety as he prepares to face the Tigers -- a team against whom he has enjoyed tremendous success over the past three years, with a 1.57 ERA in five starts against Detroit since the 2009 season. Instead, the questions have been answered, and so as much as he looks forward to getting back on the mound in a game that counts, he did not feel an unusual degree of excitement or emotion as he prepared for his first start of a new season.
“It doesn’t feel different right now,” Buchholz said. “I know I’m going to be pretty amped up [Sunday]. But I’m just thinking of it as another game, go out there in the first inning or so, I might be amped up, but you’ve got to go out there, execute pitches and try to let those guys get themselves out.
“It’s more of a relaxed state of mind knowing that everything’s fine and not having to worry about anything other than going out there and executing pitches and trying to help put this team in a position to win.”
With an unexpectedly early question mark hovering over their rotation, the Red Sox need Buchholz to be ready to do just that. Even with a healthy and effective Beckett, the team is built on the assumption that Buchholz will be able to shoulder a load. But in the absence of certainty about the Sox’ No. 2 starter, the significance of Lester and Buchholz grows.
Buchholz does not shy from his responsibility to the pitching staff. In fact, he is targeting a benchmark with which he has flirted in the past but never cleared.
“That’s my goal at the beginning of every spring and at the end of every season, is to go out and make your 33 or 34 starts in a season and get to that 200-inning plateau,” said Buchholz. “The last couple seasons, if the freak things that happened didn’t happen, I feel like I put myself in a good position to reach that point.”
Now, the Sox need the 27-year-old to move beyond the random injuries, and to hit the ground running. A year ago, Buchholz was in a comparable situation, as he started the Sox’ third game of the year after his team had dropped its first two contests.
He was decent but not great in that contest, allowing four runs (on four solo homers) to the Rangers in 6 1/3 innings as the Sox got swept, thus deepening their early-season hole. Now, one year later, the Sox turn to the right-hander once again in their third game of the year, hoping that a now-healthy Buchholz can provide them with the sort of performance that his team needs to gain its footing.
“Clay,” said Sox manager Bobby Valentine, “is a guy we’re counting on to be a good pitcher for us. Absolutely.”
There is no alternative to doing so.