As much as it must pain doubters to say it, the Boston Red Sox are lucky that they kept pitcher Clay Buchholz. He’s taken the mound like protecting a fort.
After losing two straight games, the Red Sox could not afford another blow to their postseason hopes against the Padres in San Diego. Steven Wright, Boston’s All-Star knuckleball starter, was still out with a right shoulder injury, leaving it up to Buchholz to, once again, try to rekindle the faith that Red Sox Nation had in him during the 2013 World Series championship run.
He delivered the Red Sox a solid victory, one that put them tied with the Toronto Blue Jays at the top of the American League East division.
The damage was minimal. Buchholz only allowed one earned run, a leadoff home run by hot bat Ryan Schimpf, in the fourth inning. The Padres got eight hits, no walks, and struck out six times against the 32-year-old righty from Texas. His success stemmed from him being able to hit the strike zone, as 61 out of his 87 pitches were strikes. He also induced five groundouts and five flyouts in 6.2 innings of work.
The difference between the Buchholz of 2015 and the improved Buchholz of late 2016 is how he’s handled pressure.
In the seventh inning of last night’s game, he gave up two straight singles that prompted a coach’s meeting on the mound. Instead of getting the hook for a job well done, Buchholz was left in the game to see if he could get out of the jam on his own. Buchholz proceeded to strike out the next two batters on a combined nine pitches.
The old Buchholz would have buckled and let the Padres break the game wide open, forcing a pitch in the strike zone only for it to be blown away over the fence. Instead, Buchholz held his ground. The relievers and the offense took it the rest of the way, making the score 5-1 in favor of Boston.
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And, it’s not like the team has done him many favors, either. Buchholz has been kicked back and forth, between the bullpen and the starting rotation, three times this year. Such treatment could rattle any seasoned veteran’s confidence to protect the mound. “But Buchholz kicked off his fourth stint in the rotation on Tuesday night in San Diego and looked poised to stay there the rest of the way,” according to Ian Browne of
Red Sox manager John Farrell said, “He’s pitching his best baseball of this year at the right time for us […] That’s why you can’t give Clay enough credit for the role he’s been put into, some of it by his own doing early on. Again, it’s how you finish and he’s finishing in good fashion.”
Buchholz spoke to the media after the game, expressing words that reflected a man who has looked long and hard at himself in the mirror:
"“It’s a business. I have to look at it that way. I’ve tried to work on the things I’ve needed to work on to get back moving forward. Everybody has sort of caught onto it. We have a really good club, and everybody knows if they go out and do their little part of whatever it is, we have a good chance to win.”"
In 17 starts this season, the victory was just the sixth for Buchholz. His 4.99 ERA is actually lower than it has been for most of the year. Browne chalks it up to “the power of perseverance,” but it may go even further than that, in Buchholz’s case. In his last 36.2 innings of work, Buchholz has a 3-1 record with a 2.95 ERA. His 25 strikeouts to only eight walks is a testament to his resolve to never give up.
The narrative on Buchholz changed just two weeks ago in Detroit against the Tigers. With all of the well-documented distractions that he had to face, Buchholz looked strong and determined. He cruised for six straight innings. Yes, Junichi Tazawa came in to relieve him only to cough up the game, but Buchholz didn’t let it phase him. His stuff has been much better.
Did that confidence come from his time in the bullpen? Buchholz had a .198 opposing batting average in a relief role, second on the team only to closer Craig Kimbrel (.166).
Or did that confidence come from Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski? Before the trade deadline, Dombrowski gave Buchholz a ringing endorsement, saying that he was “protection” for the other starters, as a reliever or a starter. His words, ironically, meant that Buchholz was protected from leaving the roster. That decision has paid off, as Wright may or may not make another start this season, leaving a spot in the rotation for Buchholz.
It’s not a role that Buchholz is taking by default; it’s one that Buchholz has earned. With every performance, the prodigal son steps into the light and in the favor of Red Sox Nation, once again. Can he keep it up? Only Buchholz can answer that question. At least for now, it looks like Buchholz will have an opportunity to prove himself.