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Buchholz’s outing a cause for alarm

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 3, 2009

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BALTIMORE - The Red Sox might be bouncing into the offday with a little pride in their stride following a sweep of the lowly Orioles after an electrifying 23-hit, 18-run outburst as a result of their new Victor Martinez-infused offense.

As the Sox, still a half-game behind the Yankees, visit Tampa Bay tomorrow there has to be one major concern: Which pitcher will emerge after Josh Beckett and Jon Lester?

After all, when the dust settles and the Sox are playing in October, they’ll need more than two dependable starters. Tim Wakefield is due back within 10 days. But when he returns there’ll be a collective holding of breath on whether his back will hold up.

If you think it’s Clay Buchholz, then well, seven runs and nine hits over four innings plus isn’t going to cut it. He has pitched good innings, shown good stuff, throwing in the 95-mile-per-hour range, but he threw some balls yesterday that moved right over the plate. He was tagged for two homers and allowed six runs in the third inning.

This is no longer player development. Buchholz will be 25 years old Aug. 14 and we’ve yet to see signs that he can be a seven-plus-inning pitcher and be a factor down the stretch. We haven’t seen that from John Smoltz, who didn’t pitch well but got the win Friday night, and we haven’t seen it very often from Brad Penny, who is 7-5 with a lofty 5.07 ERA.

It’s no secret the Sox must have felt the same uneasiness at the trading deadline because they did make bids for Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, and inquired about Felix Hernandez. None of it worked out, so they concentrated on bolstering the lineup by adding Martinez, who has improved the offense as advertised.

You wonder if they’ll come to regret not dealing for a pitcher. In their last starts, Buchholz, Penny, and Smoltz have combined for 15 innings, 24 hits, and 19 earned runs.

However, while the Sox are searching, they are still in a fairly good spot and with time to straighten this out.

Although the Yankees were criticized for sticking with Sergio Mitre as their No. 5 starter and not making a better bid to acquire Jarrod Washburn, they have four other starters who are pitching much better than Boston’s top four.

Certainly Buchholz’s tough outing might have been slightly different had Mike Lowell’s range been better and he could have grabbed Felix Pie’s grounder in the hole in the third. But what came after that was Buchholz’s responsibility, and he allowed some hard-hit balls.

The Sox bailed him out by scoring seven runs the next inning, but Buchholz started the fifth by allowing a solo shot to Adam Jones, a walk, and a single. There was absolutely no point in leaving him in the game.

It’s a long season and there are many ebbs and flows in a rotation. The Sox made plans in the likely case Wakefield - who turned 43 yesterday - and/or another starter broke down. In this case it was Daisuke Matsuzaka, their No. 3 starter who won 18 games last season. They signed Penny and Smoltz (for the second half), and figured Buchholz would help at some point.

Well, the some point is right now.

Buchholz has been hungry to get to the big leagues after dominating at Triple A. For all the talk about Buchholz continuing that domination up here, it hasn’t happened. There have been the usual struggles of a young pitcher. Some of the things he could get away with at Triple A, he can’t get away with here. Breaking balls that hang and fastballs that dive over the plate will be hit and hit hard. The Orioles didn’t miss many yesterday.

“It’s not the way I drew it up. I was handed a seven-run lead and those are gifts when a team can score you that many runs,’’ Buchholz said. “The first two innings were good, but it just got away from me a little bit. I didn’t execute a couple of pitches and I didn’t locate them where I wanted to. Allowing seven runs is tough to swallow, but I have to tell myself that those days come and go and I’ll have a lot more starts and the outcome will be better.’’

A wise old football coach once said, “You are what your record says you are.’’ So you can talk about bad breaks, bloop hits, tipping your cap to the hitter, and all the things you hear when pitchers aren’t quite up to snuff. At least Buchholz didn’t make those excuses. He knows you don’t almost blow a seven-run lead and make excuses about it.

“I left a couple of changeups over the plate and a majority of my fastballs slid back over the plate to lefties. I thought my stuff was there, but my execution wasn’t,’’ Buchholz said. “It was location of pitches more than anything. I’ve had some rocky starts before and I’ve been able to come back from them.’’

The Sox are fortunate to be starting Lester tomorrow in Tampa Bay, because you know he’ll battle and go deep. Then it’s Penny, and you just don’t know. Nor will you know for the start of a four-game series against the Yankees Thursday when Smoltz opposes Joba Chamberlain.

The Red Sox have gotten away with some real stinkers. Against good teams, the likelihood is those wins would be losses.

Not to mention these three pitchers have become major bullpen killers. On a team that is down to 11 pitchers, overuse of the bullpen isn’t a good thing.

Manager Terry Francona said he was actually grateful that Buchholz was able to get through the fourth after the third-inning horror show. Thanks for small favors.

The Red Sox want Buchholz to emerge as Lester once did. He is their farm-developed righthanded starter. He has been left out of every major deal because of his great potential. You wondered after he spun a no-hitter against the Orioles Sept. 1, 2007, whether he had peaked way too soon. His 2008 bore that out and even Buchholz thought the no-hitter may have hindered his development.

But after a great offseason and a tremendous start to his Triple A season, he’s come back and been OK - and then yesterday he was lousy.

“I know this team needs me to pitch well,’’ Buchholz said.

But he’s not alone. Smoltz and Penny, two veterans need to step up, too.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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