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At last, all eyes are on Clay Buchholz

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 10, 2013 01:16 PM

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Here's one semi-silly and context-free way of looking at how long Clay Buchholz has been absent from the Red Sox rotation:

When he first began feeling discomfort in his right shoulder many moons ago, the explanation was that he had fallen asleep while holding his then-2-year-old daughter and snoozing at an awkward angle caused some type of tweak.

Note that daughter is singular there. Now? It's plural. For in the time since he last threw a pitch to a major-league batter, another Buchholz girl was born in the interim.

So far, so good. Little Landri Grace Buchholz, born last Wednesday, has yet to zonk out on her dad in such a way that leads him to require a visit with Dr. James Andrews.

Now, of course it hasn't been nine months since Buchholz last threw a pitch for the Red Sox. It just feels that way.

It's almost three months to the day since his last appearance, a 6.2-inning, 2-earned-run performance in a 7-2 victory over the Angels June 8. That victory improved his record to 9-0 in a dozen starts, while raising his ERA to 1.71. He was essential in helping the Red Sox get off to a 17-8 start in April, putting the stench of '12 behind them, and the last time we saw him he was arguably the best pitcher in the entire American League.

He's back, finally and at last, Tuesday night as the Red Sox kick off an important three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The question of the day: What should we expect?

The answer: Who the heck knows?

I mean, the last time Buchholz pitched, the Red Sox were 63 games and 38 wins into their season, Jose Iglesias was playing third base, and Koji Uehara was setting up for Andrew Bailey. During his rehab starts, he's worked on specifics -- fastball command, hitting his spots with his changeup -- without lighting up the radar gun. Tonight will be the first time he really dials it up in months.

All we really know in advance is that he'll be limited to 75-80 pitches -- and that the Red Sox' expectations tonight and beyond are reasonable.

doubrontfelixfinn910.jpg"Our goal going through the remainder of the month would be to not only stretch him out but to see if there's a certain dependability we'll get from him," manager John Farrell said earlier this week. "We really can't expect that he'll come back and pitch to the form [he had]. We're hopeful we get a guy who is close to what he was prior to the injury. It would be an additional lift to this rotation."

Buchholz's injury is one of the few bummers of this remarkable Red Sox summer, now carrying over into fall. He was so consistently excellent through those dozen starts that we're left to only imagine the season he might have had without the weird injury and prolonged absence.

(Insert your own Gregory Campbell-got-hurt-later-and-returned-sooner joke here, even if it isn't entirely true. I'll wait.)

Instead, the promise of a full season of excellence -- something that has eluded him save for his excellent 2010 of 17 wins and a 2.33 ERA -- went unfulfilled this year.

I have to admit, I'm a bit wary of him making his return against the desperate Rays, but the Red Sox do have a 7.5-game cushion in the division, and it's imperative as they head toward October that they find out what they have in Buchholz for the remainder of the season.

He's such an intriguing wild-card for this team. I'm not sure it's fair to expect him to resemble an ace over the final handful of regular-season starts. But I do think it's reasonable to expect him to be an upgrade on the recent version of Felix Doubront, and to fit in nicely with Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Jake Peavy as a pitcher who is a No. 2-caliber starter who occasionally delivers more than that.

In other words, he's one more good pitcher in a deep rotation. Tonight, we begin to find out just how good.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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