The Red Sox and Clay Buchholz tried to grasp at the silver lining, clinging to the notion that the pitcher continues to make incremental progress in his recovery from the strained trapezius muscle that has now kept him out for nearly three weeks. Even so, when the right-hander told John Farrell, "It's not ready," in suggesting the need to cut off a bullpen session after 15-18 pitches, it was hard not to see the development as ominous.
After all, no pitcher in baseball this year has enjoyed the singular dominance of Buchholz. He is 9-0, with a 1.71 ERA, a source of both innings and excellence for the Red Sox virtually every time he's taken the mound this season. Given that he was unable to throw a bullpen session, even if the results of the MRI he underwent on Wednesday prove benign, the fact that he's still waiting for the soreness in the base of his neck to resolve suggests an ever-dwindling likelihood that he can appear in a game before the All-Star break on July 14.
Obviously, the thought of continued life without Buchholz is one that the Sox would have preferred not to confront.
“Top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers, when they’re absent, are hard to replace,” said manager John Farrell. “We’re still playing pretty darn well as a team, but we have to do what’s right for Clay to get him back not only active but to the level of performance he was operating at before he went down.”
When that happens is anyone's guess. Buchholz suggested his hope that he would pitch again in the first half. Farrell, however, acknowledged that given the fact that his recovery keeps getting pushed back, it's impossible to affix a timeframe for his potential return.
So what does that mean for the Sox' ambitions of contention? In Buchholz's absence, do they have the pieces to avoid a rotation meltdown?
It's worth looking at what's actually transpired since the pitcher's injury. Buchholz went down on June 8. The Sox have played 17 games since then. In that span, their starters have a combined 4.38 ERA -- squarely in the middle (8th of 15 teams) in the AL. But within the AL East, the Sox actually rank second only to the Blue Jays (3.46) during that span. Their starters have been better than those of the Orioles (4.56, T-10th in the AL), Yankees (4.56, T-10th) and Rays (5.03, 12th) in the same stretch.
Breaking it down by pitcher, Felix Doubront has a 2.55 ERA in three starts while averaging just under six innings a start, John Lackey -- following his dazzling 12-strikeout, no-walk performance on Wednesday -- has a 3.38 ERA while averaging 6 2/3 innings in four starts and Ryan Dempster has a 3.51 ERA while averaging 6 1/3 innings in four starts. As a fill-in, Alfredo Aceves is 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA while having given the Sox a total of 11 innings in two starts (it would have been more but for a rain delay after five innings in one of the outings).
That's four performances that have been little short of excellent. Beyond those, Allen Webster gave up five runs in 4 1/3 innings in a spot start. And then, there is the unexpectedly weak link, as Jon Lester has a 9.98 ERA in three starts since Buchholz's injury.
"What John Lackey continues to do has been not only consistent but even in the offseason we felt like he was one guy that has a chance to impact our team as much as anyone, and he's doing that," said Farrell. "He's kind of taken on a greater significance as we go deeper into the season by his performance. Evident by [Dempster's] performance [Wednesday] night [a six-inning, two-run effort], he's been pretty much what we anticipated. He's been dependable. We know he's going to walk out there for a minimum of six innings, seven innings.
"We've got to get Jon Lester back on track," Farrell conceded. "He'd be the first to admit to you as well. There are signs within each outing that that is imminent. But until that's strung together a little bit more consistently -- and more than anything, it's the innings. We go through a turn in the rotation where you've got two guys going beyond the fifth inning, that's going to show up in other areas, particularly the bullpen."
The innings that Buchholz had assumed represent a headache for the Sox, not necessarily on days when he would have pitched but instead across the board. Buchholz was a lock for seven or eight innings virtually every time he's taken the hill. Aceves and Webster gave the Sox a tick more than five innings per outing in their combined three starts. The difference of a couple of relief innings is felt in the following days, particularly given the unsettled state of the Red Sox bullpen as a whole.
Still, to date, at least statistically, the brunt of Buchholz's absence has been borne by the rotation. While the starters have gone from a 3.61 ERA that ranked third in the AL to their more recent 4.38 mark over the last 17 games, the bullpen has largely held steady. Sox relievers had a 4.07 ERA (11th in the AL) through Buchholz's last start on June 8; since, they have a 4.09 mark that ranks 12th.
That's not to say that the Sox don't have plenty of problems to work out in their bullpen. They most certainly do. Even so, until Buchholz gets back and proves he can perform at something approximating the level he was working at when he went down, the biggest question will loom over the caliber of performance offered by the rotation.
It is an area where the Sox have shown impressive depth thus far this year, arguably their best in years. The re-emergence of Lackey as one of the top pitchers in the AL -- a 2.99 ERA who is striking out nearly a batter an inning -- has been, as Farrell suggested, a considerable difference-maker, and Dempster represents a stabilizing anchor. Doubront, for all of his inefficiencies and inconsistencies, has given the Sox a chance to win in most of his trips to the mound over the last five weeks. Meanwhile, Aceves has demonstrated an ability to help, while Webster has shown the stuff -- if not the consistent results -- to be a contributor. (Meanwhile, both Rubby De La Rosa and Brandon Workman are dominating in Triple-A in a fashion that makes them relevant components of the depth equation.)
Even without a dominant Lester, then, the Sox rotation seems to have enough talent to make a prolonged downturn unlikely. If the team can get its Opening Day starter to recover from his recent horrendous run of seven starts (7.20 ERA), and look more like the pitcher who dominated through his first nine outings of the year, then the team has the makings of a strong rotation even while waiting anxiously for the return of its best starter.
For obvious reasons, Farrell chose to go with the more optimistic outlook on Lester and his rotation.
"I don't think it'll continue," the manager said of his pitcher's slump. "I don't think Jon Lester's stretch he's on will continue. He's too talented of a pitcher. I firmly believe and am confident that the group we have are very capable of keeping us in a position we are over the next three months."
Put another way, the Sox are not unique in having to deal with the loss or absence of a front-of-the-rotation pitcher. The second-place Orioles have been without Wei-Yin Chen since May 12, and right-hander Jason Hammel has been nowhere near as dominant as he was a season ago. CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes have all seen their performances take considerable hits. The Rays have been without reigning AL Cy Young winner David Price since May 15, and left-hander Matt Moore (2.18 ERA through May, 8.39 ERA in June) is producing the same sort of tale of two seasons as Lester. And while the Blue Jays are now rolling, none of the five starters who opened the year in their rotation has an ERA better than 4.60; Josh Johnson missed more than a month, and Brandon Morrow has now been out since May 28 and will remain sidelined for quite a bit longer after suffering a setback in his rehab outing.
In other words -- the absence of Buchholz is painful for his club, but in the context of the AL East, the Red Sox rotation remains fairly well positioned. Pennant races are tests not just of comparative high-end talent in a division (and, in the world of the wild cards, the league), but also of the ability to withstand injuries to key players.
After the Sox won Buchholz's start on June 8, they were up 1 1/2 games in the division. Since then, they are 9-8, but thanks to the struggles of the other teams in the AL East, they've actually expanded their first-place lead to 3 1/2 games. They are holding the proverbial fort in their best pitcher's absence; if they can continue to do so, particularly in the coming four-game set against the hard-charging Blue Jays, then their outlook going forward will be a fairly promising one for a team desperate to return to the postseason.