On August 20, 2008, Clay Buchholz was shelled, and shell-shocked. He couldn't make it out of the third inning against the pitiful Orioles, allowing five runs and earning a demotion to Double-A Portland. The pitcher seemed overwhelmed by the challenge of the majors, unable to gain his footing against even the weakest of opponents.
On Wednesday, 364 days after his inglorious return to the minors, Buchholz represented something entirely different. In the final leg of what seemed a three-part test befitting Job, the pitcher never blinked.
Buchholz went toe-to-toe with three straight pitchers who have either lined their shelves with Cy Young awards or soon may do so. CC Sabathia of the Yankees, Justin Verlander of the Tigers, Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays…
Buchholz found himself facing a who’s who of the top pitchers in the American League in consecutive starts. It was a run of terrible luck, to be sure, something that Buchholz acknowledged after suffering a 2-0 loss to Verlander and the Tigers when he said, “I’m picking the wrong pitchers to throw against.”
And yet, in another sense, the opposite was true. What Buchholz demonstrated against a group of the American League’s elite arms had major implications for the Red Sox season and the young pitcher’s role in it.
Buchholz was little short of outstanding in facing all three of the pitchers. He allowed two runs in six innings against the Yankees, suffering a hard-luck loss on a day when his team couldn’t score against Sabathia. Buchholz was even better against Verlander, logging seven innings and permitting just one earned run, but he was on the losing end of another shutout loss.
Finally, on Wednesday – when he featured a powerful 92-94 mph fastball and a slider and changeup that were both capable of getting grounders – he broke through. Buchholz held his ground, allowing just one run on six hits in six innings.
Halladay, for whom Buchholz could have been traded prior to the July 31 deadline, was the one who stumbled, allowing five runs in as many innings for one of his worst starts in years. Buchholz claimed what seemed an immensely satisfying victory in his club’s 6-1 win in Toronto. (Recap.)
“It's always fun going up against the other team's best pitcher," Buchholz told reporters. "If you want to succeed in this game for a long time, you've got to succeed against the guys that are the best in the game, and [Halladay]'s definitely in that category.”
Buchholz produced arguably the best stretch of his major-league career against his stiffest competition. For the first time in the bigs, he delivered three straight quality starts, forging a 1.89 ERA over the outings.
The significance could be far-reaching. In 2007, after all, Jon Lester delivered the best stretch of his career (up to that time) in September, going 2-0 with a 3.34 ERA in six appearances (five starts). That performance helped to earn him the start in Game 4 of the World Series, and also played a role in convincing the Sox to hold onto him in the offseason following that year.
Buchholz, now in possession of a 2-3 record and 3.99 ERA this year, is quickly making a case that he belongs in the Sox rotation going forward in 2009, both in the regular season and, if the Sox get there, the postseason.
A year ago, Buchholz was banished to minors in August because he was overwhelmed by the major-league environment. The fear of failure was constant, resulting in his being optioned to Double-A. On Wednesday, Buchholz continued to author a different chapter. The fact that he has excelled against a potentially daunting group of opponents suggests growth and development towards the fulfillment of his potential.
A three-start run, of course, guarantees nothing, but at the least, Buchholz is trending in a very different direction than the one in which he was headed a year ago. In the span of a few starts, the 25-year-old has gone from a complete uncertainty to a potential stabilizing force in the rotation.
Here are four other lessons from a night when – thanks to the Rangers’ 5-4 loss to the Twins (recap) – the Sox reclaimed the lead in the American League wild card:
BUCHHOLZ WASN’T ALONE IN IMPROVING THE SOX’ PITCHING OUTLOOK
The 2009 Red Sox season has been, quite simply, incredibly weird to evaluate. At varying times, the team looked like it had one of the best offenses in baseball, and then performed as if it was one of the most feeble for extended stretches. The bullpen went from invincible to ineffective for a short period of time earlier this month.
But no aspect of the team has undergone such dramatic pendulum swings of perception as the starting pitching staff. At the start of the year, the rotation was highly inconsistent thanks to the puzzling early-season struggles of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. Those two righted the ship, as did Brad Penny, and suddenly, “concerns” emerged that the team had too much starting pitching, and that trades would be necessary in order to accommodate the return of John Smoltz.
Yet by July, with Daisuke Matsuzaka and All-Star Tim Wakefield on the D.L., and Smoltz (who signed with the Cardinals on Wednesday) woefully ineffective, an apparent team strength suddenly became cause for panic. Many viewed the Sox as featuring two legitimate starters (Beckett and Lester) and nothing behind them.
Now, it is entirely possible that the needle might shift again. Buchholz’ third straight excellent outing served as part of that. But there were other notable developments, including:
--Wakefield received peace of mind in the form of an exam that suggested that he is not risking further injury by pitching. Wakefield has been frustrated by a lack of leg strength stemming from his lower back injury, but a thorough exam revealed that he should be able to pitch through the issue.
“He’s not endangering himself by pitching,” manager Terry Francona told reporters. “He’s not endangering his potential recovery of leg strength by waiting until October if – if – a surgical procedure is needed. And again, these are big ifs.”
Wakefield will pitch in a rehab game for Triple-A Pawtucket on Friday. Barring a setback, the Sox would then look to have him return to the rotation next week.
--Matsuzaka similarly is taking steps towards a return to the hill. The pitcher, who continues to build strength at the team’s extended spring training facility in Fort Myers, has a bullpen session on Friday. He will then throw a couple innings on Monday in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League.
That, Francona told reporters, will be followed by a start for Double-A Portland on Aug. 29 (approx. 50 pitches), and for Triple-A Pawtucket (approx. 65 pitches) on Sept. 3. That could potentially leave the pitcher ready to return to the majors a bit after Labor Day (though if the Sox prefer to have him get one more minor-league tuneup, there is at least a chance that Portland could present that opportunity if they reach the Eastern League playoffs).
--Paul Byrd continued his effort to return to the majors as a potential depth option for the Sox. The right-hander started in Pawtucket and declared the outing a success despite the fact that he allowed three runs in four innings. He anticipates being ready for a call-up to the majors by Sept. 1.
“Today was a big step for me because I needed to see that my fastball was good enough,” Byrd said in Pawtucket. “I needed to see that I wasn’t going to be throwing batting practice and that my fastball had life because there’s 85, 86 mph that leaves the park and there’s 85, 86 mph that is sneaky and it cuts and sinks and guys can’t figure it out. I needed to see that I still had that and I felt for the most part I did.”
In short, for a day, the Sox appeared to have changed direction, edging closer to a position where they might not need to scramble for arms.
POWER IS NOT THE PROBLEM
The pitching staff is not the only element on the Sox that is subject to sudden changes in perception. A lineup that represented a growing concern for the Sox through much of July and early August appears capable of breaking out.
In particular, the notion that the lineup lacked thump is enduring a major challenge. Following a night when the Sox walloped three homers – with David Ortiz, Jason Bay and Victor Martinez doing the damage – the team now has 149 homers this year, fifth in the majors. Of late, the team has shown the sort of top-to-bottom thump that had characterized the early months of the season.
The Red Sox have two or more home runs in each of their last five games (tied for the fourth longest such streak by a Sox team this decade), eight of their last nine, and 14 of 18 beginning July 31. Over that period they lead the majors with 33 homers.
A couple of players who endured prolonged slumps have been at the heart of the team’s recent show of muscle. After a rut in which he failed to go deep in 20 straight games, Jason Bay has homered in seven of his last 11 contests. The seven round-trippers are tied (with Klingon Joe Mauer) for the American League lead this month. Bay leads the majors with an .860 slugging mark in August (min. 50 plate appearances).
David Ortiz, meanwhile, has gone deep in three straight games. On Wednesday, he stayed back on a hanging Roy Halladay breaking ball and simply powered it over the right-field fence. He has gone deep with four homers in his last five games.
Their hot streaks have re-established a lineup that, when healthy, features top-to-bottom thump. The Sox have eight different players who have gone deep at least 10 times this year, tied for the second most in the majors. (The Yankees have nine.)
THE SOX CAN DELIVER AGAINST A VERY GOOD PITCHER
Just last week, one member of the Red Sox described Roy Halladay as being “in a class by himself” in terms of the dominating arsenal he features. The right-hander is a force unlike virtually any other.
He has averaged 7.1 innings per start since the beginning of the 2002 season. Nearly every time he takes the mound, he delivers at least six innings, and more often contributes seven, eight, nine, or even – on two occasions – 10 innings.
And so it was noteworthy that the Sox managed to knock him out after just five innings. It was Halladay’s shortest start in more than two years against an American League team in which he left for a reason other than injury before completing six innings. The last time that he failed to deliver six frames against an A.L. foe was on July 12, 2007, against the Sox. His five-run yield was also the most runs he’d permitted against the Sox since late in the ’07 season.
As recently as last week, the Sox had faced 14 starters with ERAs of 3.50 or lower. Those starters had delivered quality starts (6+ innings, 3 or fewer runs) in all but one of those outings.
But the fact that the team prevented Halladay from repeating that success represented something of a milestone. The Blue Jays ace is someone who is typically able to churn out quality starts even on nights when he doesn’t have his best stuff. The Sox did not permit him to do that.
“We've been swinging good and when you're swinging good, that's what happens," David Ortiz told reporters after his third homer in as many games. "It doesn't matter who we face, we're going to produce."
ROCCO BALDELLI WILL BE MISSED FOR ONE LAST GAME
Rocco Baldelli is all but certain to come off the disabled list as soon as he is eligible to do so on Friday. The “left ankle contusion” that sent him to the D.L. was barely an issue to begin with. The outfielder was put on the shelf, as much as anything, because the Sox needed a player capable of more regular playing time while J.D. Drew’s availability was jeopardized by soreness in his groin.
His absence has been felt by the club on different occasions. Since the reserve outfielder landed on the D.L., the Sox have faced four left-handed starters. The team has gone 1-3 in those games, and the starters (Derek Holland of the Rangers, Ricky Romero of the Jays, CC Sabathia of the Yankees and Andy Pettitte of the Yanks) have a combined 2.52 ERA.
On Thursday – the final day before Baldelli is reactivated – the Sox will face Jays lefty Brett Cecil. Cecil has enjoyed better numbers against lefties than righties; Baldelli would have been a near certainty to start against him. Instead, the outfielder will be finishing his rehab assignment in Pawtucket.
Jennifer McCaffrey contributed from Pawtucket.