NEW YORK — Clay Buchholz at this hour is the best pitcher in baseball.
Care to argue? Go ahead. Whom do you like better? Justin Verlander? Clayton Kershaw? Felix Hernandez? Stephen Strasburg? Matt Moore? Patrick Corbin?
Buchholz has outpitched all of them this year. He shut out the Yankees for five innings in Sunday night’s rain-shortened 3-0 victory, lowering his ERA to a major league-best 1.62. The Red Sox led in the sixth when the hard rains fell and the game was eventually called after a pair of delays. Buchholz improved his record to 8-0.
He hasn’t had a bad game. Not one. He pitched at least six innings in his first 10 starts and went only five Sunday night because the rains came while the Sox were hitting in the top of the sixth. There was no way manager John Farrell was sending Buchholz back to the mound after a 37-minute rain delay, especially given the fact that Buchholz missed his last start with stiffness in his throwing shoulder.
“The last three innings he pitched as sharply as he has all season,” Farrell said of Buchholz. “He kept them almost being tentative to the point they were unsure which pitch was going to come in what sequence.”
The Sox are in first place today because Jon Lester has been good and Buchholz has been sensational. He has allowed more than two earned runs once in 11 starts.
Roger Clemens did something like this in 1986 when he won his first 14 decisions. That was the year Clemens won the American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards. That was the year of Clemens’s first 20-K game. That was the year Clemens was MVP of the All-Star Game and won the seventh game of the ALCS.
Daisuke Matsuzaka started 8-0 for the Red Sox in 2008, but we will not insult your intelligence by taking the comparison any further.
Pedro Martinez’s ERA was 1.44 after his first 11 starts in 2001.
Old-timers might remember Sonny Siebert starting the 1971 season 8-0 with a 1.62 ERA through 10 starts. That was the year of the famous Fenway duel between Siebert and Oakland’s young gun, Vida Blue.
“I’m just trying to ride the wave,” Buchholz said. “It’s been fun.”
He said his shoulder felt fine.
“I felt good coming off the layoff between starts,” he said. “It was good to get back out there and get the work in that I needed to do.”
The Sox and their fans were holding their collective breath when Buchholz took the mound in the House That Derek Jeter Built Sunday. Buchholz had been bumped from his previous start after his shoulder stiffened when he fell asleep while cradling his 2-year-old daughter over his pitching shoulder. In the pantheon of weird Sox excuses, it ranked significantly below Wade Boggs hurting himself while removing his cowboy boots and Paxton Crawford falling on a drinking glass in his hotel room.
But it was a reason to worry. Since drafting him in 2005, the club has been cautious about his workload and he’s no stranger to the disabled list.
Under the tutelage of then-pitching coach John Farrell, Buchholz came to the majors when he was 23 in 2007 and he pitched a no-hitter in his second major league appearance. We thought he might be a secret weapon for the 2007 postseason, but the Sox shut him down when he reached 150 innings (big leagues and minors combined) and Buchholz watched as his teammates won the World Series.
Battling big league hitters and his own maturity issues, Buchholz was 2-9 in 15 starts with the 2008 Sox and spent time on the DL with a torn nail on his right middle finger. He spent half of 2009 in Pawtucket, then emerged as a 17-game winner and an AL All-Star in 2010. Even in his breakthrough season, Buchholz endured a short stint on the DL after pulling a hamstring running the bases in San Francisco.
In 2011, with Farrell off to manage the Blue Jays, Buchholz was limited to 14 starts because of a stress fracture in his lumbar spine. His absence was a critical yet often overlooked part of the 7-20 September of 2011 that led to the firing of Terry Francona and triggered Theo Epstein’s departure to the Cubs. Buchholz was also one of the Chicken-and-Beer boyos, following the wayward footsteps of Josh Beckett, but Buchholz was largely forgotten when the blame was assessed.
Buchholz made 29 starts last year but went on the DL in June because of a stomach illness. Like Lester, he had trouble finding a rhythm as pitching coaches came and went from Fenway. Buchholz clearly missed Farrell (he once admitted he was slightly afraid of the John Wayne-esque mentor) and underperformed for Curt Young, Bob McClure, and Randy Niemann.
He took the mound Sunday night working on 10 days of rest because of a sore AC joint in his right shoulder. He looked a little shaky at the start, going to 3-2 counts on the first two batters and walking Robinson Cano, but he quickly settled in. In five innings before the delays, Buchholz surrendered only two hits and struck out four. He threw 71 pitches, 43 strikes. In the sixth, when the grounds crew first covered the field, Buchholz’s night was over but he had added another victory to his perfect record.