Clear for Clay?

Jon Lester has been back with the Red Sox for almost three weeks now, and only on Tuesday will he make his first start of the season at Fenway Park, where a sellout crowd is sure to welcome him back with thunderous appreciation, no matter what that ballooning ERA says about his recent tribulations.

How many more there will be after that has to be a pertinent question.

Though the Red Sox calmed the fears of an increasingly panicked New England last night with a 9-6 win (coupled with the Yankees’ 14-4 loss to Toronto) over the Angels, Lester wasn’t good again for the third straight start. The young lefty couldn’t get out of the fourth inning, allowing eight hits and five runs, throwing 93 pitches in that short span.

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That’s a number that should be surprising, but with Lester, it’s simply the norm. And that’s not good.
The concerns that plagued Lester last season before he was forced to shut things down with his lymphoma diagnosis are still prevalent a season removed. He’s inconsistent with his pitch selection, his lack of command — particularly on his fastball — forces him to throw far too many pitches per outing, only furthering the strain on a bullpen that had been forced into duty prematurely a night earlier after Tim Wakefield’s stinker.
Lester’s ERA is now 6.43, higher than any other teammate’s by more than a run.
There’s no denying Lester is a great story, but he’s not a great pitcher. Not yet anyway. Watching the kid work his craft on the mound is a maddening adventure most of the time. It’s evident he’s got a great selection, if only they crossed the plate every once in a while. If only he got ahead in the count. If he only he … and not to hammer on this too much but … THREW STRIKES.
Call them crazy, but the men who coach burgeoning major league hurlers seem to think this a pretty important trait when grooming future stars. With Lester, it is the definitive sign that he’s not ready for the big league atmosphere, and you have to wonder with the Red Sox seemingly back in a race for the AL East (or some have told me) how long they’ll commit to sticking with Lester as their No. 5 guy.
That could mean Julian Tavarez slips back into the rotation, where he found success for at least the first third of this season. Or it could mean the 2007 debut of Clay Buchholz.
Buchholz is just 0-1 for Triple-A Pawtucket, but has been better and better with each start, culminating in this week’s seven-inning, four-hit outing against Rochester in which he had nine strikeouts. He turns 23 on Tuesday, and the Portland Press Herald’s Kevin Thomas suggests that Red Sox fans could see him as early as next Friday when the Red Sox host the Angels in a day-night doubleheader.
According to the Providence Journal, “Buchholz has four above-average pitches and has good command of all of them. His fastball hits the radar gun in the low- to mid-90s. His curveball, slider and changeup consistently keep the opposition off balance.
“He’s aggressive on the mound and pounds the strike zone with authority.”
In other words, right now he’s everything that Lester is not.
The 2006 Red Sox minor league pitcher of the year could be destined for the same type of season Jonathan Papelbon had two years ago, when the All-Star closer was called up for a handful of starts, impressing enough to make the ALDS roster as a bullpen piece. If Lester indeed does continue to struggle, will the Sox return him to Pawtucket for a few weeks — until the rosters expand come September, or will they be content to wait until then to promote Buchholz?
There’s nothing to point to that definitely suggests Buchholz is ready for The Show, either. But it’s not like the Red Sox have exactly been content to sit around and wait to see what some of their young pitchers can do on the stage. And while Craig Hansen, Cla Meredith, and Lester produced mixed results, the immediate emergence of Papelbon in ’05 is always a delectable reminder of the risk that may be worth taking.
Still, even with the recent trials of the Red Sox pitching staff (4.96 ERA for August with every starter not named Beckett or Matsuzaka getting knocked around a good bit) even a bustout Buchholz won’t cure this team’s major flaw, which is why fans keep looking at Manny Delcarmen, then back at Theo Epstein, then back to the box scores that show Jermaine Dye has hit 11 home runs since the break and say, “Really?” That’s more than twice as many dingers since the break as David Ortiz, who can boast an increasingly concerning list of injuries plaguing him. Perhaps not unrelated is that in close and late situations this season, moments in which Ortiz used to excel, Boston ranks 28th out of 30 teams with just 65 runs.
Unless J.D. Drew suddenly morphs into the force that nobody thought the Red Sox were getting in what looks like their worst free agent contract since Edgar Renteria, Epstein is going to find the need to sneak in a bat in a waiver deal. Could they do any worse than taking along Kevin Millar when they return from Baltimore this weekend?
Millar’s .813 OPS and .380 on-base percentage would be a welcome addition at this point in the No. 5 hole behind Ortiz, and at the remainder of $2.75 million for this season, he gives you superior numbers in every category in fewer at-bats than the $14 million bust (although Millar has only played two games in the outfield this season, he played 55 games in right for Boston in 2004). Not to mention that Millar’s sometimes annoying, yet undeniably enthusiastic presence might help liven up a Red Sox clubhouse. Think about the current personnel, and then ask yourself if this group were down 3-0 in a series, does it have the unconcerned mental fortitude to pull it out? For better or worse (ahem, Jack Daniels) Millar would bring that spark.
Lester gave this team that bit of a push on the night of his 2007 debut, a special moment for him, his family, his teammates, and the millions rooting for him. Tuesday’s start at Fenway will be much the same love-in, but after that, there are going to be difficult decisions to be made, and Lester’s name is probably to be right in the mix of them.
Great story. Great pitcher? There’s a lot of work to be done before anyone can say that.

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