After sending four-fifths of their Opening Day rotation packing within a matter of days last week, the Red Sox hoped Clay Buchholz would step up and take on the leadership role for their pitching staff.
Perhaps it’s not an unreasonable hope. Buchholz, who will be 30 on Aug. 14 and is in his eighth major league season, is now the longest-tenured member of the staff. He’s thrown a no-hitter and has two World Series rings. As we have seen at times, he certainly has the stuff to be considered a staff ace.
“He has the experience and the success in the role and in this division, and certainly here in Boston to be in that position, to share the experiences that he’s gone through,” said manager John Farrell before Sunday night’s game. “I think he’s seen all sides of it, the injured side, the successful side, the World Series, that he can impart a lot of those experiences on guys. And I think he’ll relish the opportunity to do just that.”
But, as the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone. Sometimes, asking someone to take on a role that is not in that person’s nature just isn’t going to work.
On Sunday night against the Yankees, Buchholz was anything but a staff leader or ace. He needed a season-high 114 pitches to go just five innings. He matched a season high – with his previous outing – giving up seven runs on 10 hits and five walks with five strikeouts.
To say it was an ugly outing for Buchholz would be an understatement. He gave back three-run leads not once but twice. After his offense gave him a three-run lead in the first inning, he gave it right back in the second. When he allowed the Yankees to tie the game for the second time with three runs in the fifth all the damage came with two outs, after he retired the first two batters of the inning.
He left after that inning, with the game tied, 7-7. Craig Breslow gave up a home run to Brett Gardner, the first batter he faced, in the 8-7 loss.
It has been a disturbing trend for Buchholz. In his last two starts he has gone 10 innings, giving up 14 runs on 15 hits and nine walks with eight strikeouts. He has allowed seven runs in each of his last two starts, and at least four runs in in each of his last four starts. Before that he had allowed five runs total in 22 1/3 innings over three starts.
He was on the disabled list May 27 – June 24 with a hyperextended left knee. In his first four starts coming off the DL he gave up a total of nine earned runs over 29 2/3 innings for a 2.73 ERA. In his last three starts, spanning 17 innings, he has allowed 15 earned runs for a 7.94 ERA.
Before he got hurt last season, Buchholz had pitched himself into position to be if not the leading candidate for the American League Cy Young Award, then certainly among a small group – at 9-0 in 12 starts with a 1.71 ERA. Since then, however, he has been a different pitcher – in 21 starts he is 8-8 with a 5.07 ERA,
"It's been a frustrating year for me and the organization,” Buchholz said. “It's not the way we wanted to wear the Red sox uniform and go out and perform. A lot of that is on my shoulders. I need to pick it up during the season. I know you're not supposed to look at the board and numbers but it’s been a constant battle of trying to throw up zeroes and when it doesn't happen it's frustrating. I have to find a way to get through it.”
Buchholz was at a loss to explain what happened against the Yankees on Sunday.
"Everything,” he said. “Command...I didn't have a feel for much of anything and it's the second start in a row where walks killed me. My mindset is always to go out and compete and keep my team in the game and obviously I didn't do that.”
Perhaps he is trying to do too much, and pressing.
Asked what he has seen from Buchholz, manager John Farrell said he has noticed the right-hander try to “pitch a little too fine.
“That’s caused him to fall behind in the count. Mechanically, he may be running away from his arm side a little bit that’s causing some pitches to be up to the arm side. But, still, it’s the overall pitch mix and command.”
Buchholz insisted he is not bothered by the trades the Sox engineered last week that sent Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Felix Doubront packing. He said the roster moves that began on July 9 when catcher A.J. Pierzynksi was designated for assignment and turned over a third of the roster since did not change his approach.
"Nothing different,'' he said. "My mindset's always the same: to go out and try to compete and keep the team in the game. Obviously, I didn't do either of those tonight. It's not been a distraction in any kind of way for me. It's a different group of guys, but the guys we've added are just as capable of doing what the guys who left were doing. They just sort of find a way to do it.''
General manager Ben Cherington said after all the trades were completed last week he expects to be active this offseason in the starting pitching market. Perhaps the Sox will find their ace and staff leader for next season in free agency or yet another trade.
Buchholz still has about two months and perhaps 10 more starts to show he can be that pitcher. But more outings like Sunday night’s won’t convince anyone.