Clay Buchholz is already behind schedule.
Don't take my word for it, take his:
"This offseason has been a little bit different than in the past, not having the amount of time off," Buchholz told the Globe. "In recent years I've gotten to spring training being basically in midseason form as far as [pitching] off the mound. In speaking with the training staff, needed to take a step back from that and make sure that everything was fully recovered and not to push anything to far, too soon. It's a different route than I've gone the last four or five years coming to camp."
Buchholz is still stretching 180 pounds over his 6-foot-3 frame. He will never be mistaken for Roger Clemens, either during the Rocket's Red Sox Hall of Fame Days or Roger's post-"Twilight of his career"/allegedly PED-fueled stretch. As public service to all of Red Sox Nation, I am willing to donate 25 pounds to Buchholz to add more heft and girth to his lean frame.
While he's a professional athlete, and a well paid one at that, Buchholz has the misfortune of "looking" frail. In his case, the beard does not add intimidation, but rather evokes a look of someone who is recovering from something.
In Buchholz's case, that something remains a big something. No one knows for sure what sidelined Buchholz for three months in the heart of last season. "Sore shoulder caused by sleeping funny while holding his young daughter" has been the most comprehensive analysis offered publicly. Whatever sidelined him last June stopped the best run of his career, as he was 9-0 before his three-month hiatus.
When Buchholz returned to face Tampa Bay on Sept. 10, he appeared as if that all that rest never happened and shut out the Rays for five whole innings before getting the win in a 2-0 shutout. It was a critical victory for the Red Sox in keeping the Rays from the A.L. East title. Buchholz's comeback peaked with a 9-2 win over the Yankees on Sept. 15 that came during a wondrous weekend sweep in the Bronx. That all but finished off New York.
His postseason was a disappointment. He gave up 10 earned runs on 22 hits and eight walks over 20.2 innings in four starts. Even more troubling for him, he lasted only four innings in Game 4 against the Cardinals despite having a full week's rest. Buchholz said he was only at "80 percent" in the post-season.
Now, hearing him via the wonders of digital video from Fort Myers in February talking about how he's already feeling pushed about 2014, can't be comforting for anyone who expects the Red Sox starting staff to deliver this team into the postseason and a shot at another World Series Cup. Buchholz, on the plus side, said he feels "like I can do anything."
"Anything" hopefully means pitching the entire season. The Red Sox will need Clay to become a man of iron in 2014. Fenway Opening Day [April 4] will mark the 300th day since June 8. That was the day Buchholz saw his record hit 9-0. Since then, he's thrown a total of 40.2 innings, going 3-1 in September and making four starts in the postseason without a decision. More good news on Tuesday, Buchholz said that "rest" was the most important factor in his recovery. If that's the case, he ought to be a Cy Young Award favorite.
The Battle for No. 2 in the Red Sox rotation is Buchholz's to lose. But he's got competition. Lackey "overachieved" in 2013, winning 10 games despite woeful run support. More importantly, he devoured 189.1 innings, fanned 161 and posted a 3.52 ERA. He demonstrated to Red Sox fans and the rest of the planet that he can still be a legit Texas Tough Guy when healthy, not carrying around 20 excessive pounds of chicken and Bud Light and has a chance to win the clinching game of the World Series Cup Tournament. [Some of us never doubted you, John.] The Red Sox have a team option to sign Lackey for $500,000 for 2015, thanks to clause in his deal that kicked in after he missed the 2012 season.
State Run Media - as opposed to State Owned Media - gave Buchholz cover during his extended vacation last year. [Some] Columnists, fans and talk-show types wondered throughout the summer if Buchholz would tough it out and return before Christmas. Each bullpen workout and long-toss session was dutifully reported with all the exhilaration of a full flush with paper in Sochi. The Politburo assured us for weeks that his return was just around the corner. All those one-liners about Gregory Campbell playing 47 seconds with a broken leg while Buchholz sat three months with a stiff neck, were deemed unseemly and in poor taste.
Oh well, guilty as charged.
Since the Red Sox won a championship in 2013, everything that happened to the team along the journey was necessary. If you believe the premise of "Back to the Future," or those trips "Family Guy's" Stewie and Brian took in their Time Machine, changing one minor thing in the past alters the future in ways you might not want to see. It was, therefore, just fine that Buchholz missed all that time last season and that the Red Sox picked up Jake Peavy because of it.
Buchholz gets a sizable portion of the blame/credit for bringing Peavy to Boston because John Farrell and Ben Cherington did not have enough faith in Felix Doubront, Brandon Workman and Ryan Dempster backing up Jon Lester and Lackey in the rotation.
Buchholz's career highs are 17 wins in 2010 and 129 strikeouts and 189.1 innings in 2011. He compiled a 2.33 ERA over 173.1 innings four years ago, as well. Pointing forward, a completely healthy and productive season from Buchholz, and similar numbers to these highs and lows from him, are a necessity for the Red Sox to contend in 2014.
The Red Sox cannot match the once-in-a-lifetime magic of 2013's Improbable Dream Season. Even the pinkest of Pink Hats knows this. Because 2013 was a baseball season of tragic lows and unconscionable highs in Boston, logic and history tell us that 2014 will be dull and predicable.
That would the best case for the Red Sox, especially if 2014 ends with
90-something 90 wins and a playoff berth for Boston.
But for that to happen, Buchholz will have to be around for all it.
Even if he's already behind schedule before Valentine's Day.
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