The most concerning thing to be said about Clay Buchholz’s start to the 2013 season is that his ERA has ballooned each of his last three starts.
From 0.41 to 0.90 to 1.19, where it stands now after winning his American League-leading fifth game of the young season Thursday night against the Houston Astros, 7-2. Pfft. That’s almost triple what it once was a week-and-a-half ago. Time for alarm?
It has been some kind of start for Buchholz and teammate Jon Lester, who are a combined 9-0 this month. On the flip side, that means in games in which starters 3-5 have taken the mound, the Sox are a so-so 6-7, but albeit an encouraging sub-.500 considering how well Ryan Dempster has looked for the most part and the potential for John Lackey to be a more-than-decent fifth starter when he returns.
Clearly, the theory that manager John Farrell could get into the psyche of both Buchholz and Lester, following disappointing seasons for both under the Bobby Valentine regime, is proving true. But as well as Lester has rebounded, it is Buchholz who has been dazzling out of the gate.
In 2012, Buchholz won his fifth game on June 1. In his 17-win season of 2010, he won game No. 5 on May 19.
Buchholz has pitched at least seven innings in each of his first five starts and has yet to allow more than two earned runs in a game. The last pitcher to do that was Livan Hernandez in 2002. Hernandez would only go on to a 12-16 record for the San Francisco Giants, however.
The last Red Sox pitcher to have an ERA lower than Buchholz after his first five starts was Roger Clemens in 1991, when the Rocket went 18-10 with a 2.62 ERA, numbers good enough for his third Cy Young Award. One year earlier, perhaps Clemens’ finest in a Red Sox uniform, he went 4-1 with a 3.09 ERA for April.
And while we’re on the subject of unfairly comparing Buchholz’s start to that of the greatest pitchers to don the Boston uniform over the last generation, Pedro Martinez was 4-1 with a 2.21 ERA during the first month of 1999, and 5-0 with a 1.27 ERA during the first month of 2000. That two-year stretch, of course, is widely regarded among the greatest for a pitcher in the modern era.
Buchholz is right there with him.
Buchholz has allowed five earned runs all season, which to give it some perspective, is one run fewer than Alfredo Aceves surrendered in the third inning alone on Tuesday against Oakland. He leads the league in innings pitched (37 2/3), and is second to Yu Darvish in strikeouts (Darvish’s 49 to Buchholz’s 39). No AL pitcher with 30 or more innings pitched has allowed fewer earned runs.
“Yeah, things are going right right now,” Buchholz said. “When a ball’s hit, even a hard ball, it seems like it’s right at somebody. That doesn’t happen like that all the time, so you have to savor it while it is.”
“Past couple of years I’ve been a slow starter. It feels good to get out there and following up spring training with a little bit of confidence and not feeling like there’s anything that I have to fix.”
It’s foolhardy to suggest that each Buchholz start brings with it the electricity that Martinez brought to the ballpark, or the potential for greatness each time Clemens took the hill, but in these early stages, he’s become appointment viewing.
In 2004, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez went 6-2 combined during the first month of the season. In 2002, Derek Lowe and Martinez went 7-2. Bruce Hurst and Clemens went 8-0 to begin the 1988 campaign. Buchholz and Lester have combined to win more April games than three of the best Boston one-two punches over the last 25 years.
Lester can make it an even 10 with his start in Toronto on Tuesday, which would cap off as an impressive start to a Boston rotation’s season as anyone can remember. But April can also tease and ultimately break your heart. It has to be noted that Boston’s 15-7 start is the team’s best since 1994 (a 17-7 April), the year of the baseball strike (Les Expos, never forget) when Boston finished the shortened season 54-61, 17 games behind the Yankees.
How that team got off to that start though is anyone’s guess. Clemens was uneven in the first month, Danny Darwin somehow got off to a 4-1 record with a stratospheric ERA, Frank Viola was a puddle before undergoing Tommy John surgery after only six starts, and Aaron Sele was the early-season staff ace, going 3-0 with a 2.56 ERA over April. If this Red Sox starting staff is keeping pace with that schizophrenic group, it’s not so risky to figure loftier aspirations are ahead.
Maybe we’ll even have the chance to mention Lester and/or Buchholz in the same breath as Clemens and Martinez. For the time being, we’ll just keep the comparisons at a whisper.