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On Baseball

Red Sox must take it slow with Clay Buchholz

With a lean, lanky frame, Clay Buchholz is hardly the prototype power pitcher.

CHRIS O’MEARA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

With a lean, lanky frame, Clay Buchholz is hardly the prototype power pitcher.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Forget about “toughness” issues and how “minor” Clay Buchholz’s injury may be. Set aside the macho stuff that we associate with Dustin Pedroia, and hear this: Buchholz is probably the most important of the 25 players on the Red Sox right now.

The Red Sox have excelled, in large part, because of Buchholz’s 9-0 start.

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He entered the season as the No. 2 pitcher, but now he’s No. 1. He’s clearly the ace of this staff, and for this team to stay in first place in a competitive division, Buchholz needs to stay healthy and dominant.

So if it’s a neck or AC joint that gets stiff, then finding the root of why it’s happening right now is more important than him making his next start in Baltimore. The Red Sox can and should push him back so that he is as close to 100 percent as possible.

“I feel better right now than I did before my last start,” Buchholz said before Monday night’s game vs. Tampa Bay. “I’d rather take care of it now. I still haven’t talked to the medical guys about moving forward, but I think the three days here in Tampa will give us a better read.”

Buchholz, who is scheduled to start Friday vs. Baltimore, thinks the stiffness and soreness in his neck region is related. He said the medical staff has ruled out ligament damage in his shoulder, so what he’s dealing with appears to be minor and annoying.

“The [shoulder] strength is as good as it’s been since we started playing games,” Buchholz said. “Since there was nothing inside the shoulder, that was the best result we could have gotten out of it. I’m just going to wait until there’s nothing there before I go out.

“I want to be out there and help the team win. I feel in synch right now. Me going out there at 80 percent isn’t going to help anybody because there’s going to be an apprehension of me throwing a pitch. It’s not going to help anybody.”

Buchholz is right.

Positional players are different in that they can be less than 100 percent and still make contact and get a base hit, or make a play in the field, even with a nagging injury. For a pitcher, an ache or pain can throw them off both physically and mentally. They can have their mechanics thrown off even subconsciously.

Look at John Lackey, Monday’s starter. He said he had elbow discomfort for at least two years and pitched through it. Look at the numbers. Not very good.

Roger Clemens used to pitch with forearm strains, biceps tendinitis, all sorts of leg issues. He was so good that he’d sometimes be able to get through an outing and keep his team in the game, but for the most part, Clemens’s numbers suffered toward the end of his Red Sox career because he was so stubborn about pitching through a lot of stuff.

For as much as we give Pedroia credit for playing through a serious thumb injury, let’s give Buchholz credit for knowing his body, his limitations, and how he needs to feel to be at his best. This should not be misconstrued as being selfish or trying to protect a perfect record. It’s about being 100 percent competitive.

Buchholz is not the horse that Clemens was or that Jon Lester is. He’s a different kind of pitcher, one who relies on the nuances of pitching more than power. It’s hard to call a guy who throws 94 miles per hour a finesse pitcher, but he’s tall and lean. There aren’t muscles upon muscles in that neck/shoulder/collarbone area where he’s having the stiffness and soreness.

Suffice to say, when he takes the mound, there isn’t a Red Sox player who doesn’t feel they can win that night. When you have a pitcher like that, you’d better take good care of him.

Among pitchers, Buchholz has the best WAR (wins above replacement) in baseball at 3.9 —better than Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals, who is at 3.8. Buchholz’s 1.71 ERA is the best and his 1.020 WHIP is 12th in the league. He’s held opponents to a .195 average, and his nine wins are tied with Wainwright, Washington’s Jordan Zimmerman, and Arizona’s Patrick Corbin for the most in baseball.

“I’d have to say he’s the best pitcher in baseball right now,” said a National League scout. “I’ve seen Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer and King Felix and Cliff Lee and Wainwright, and this guy has four plus pitches that he can command for strikes any time he needs them.

“His location is impeccable. He can throw any pitch on any count. And his fastball command is really something, whether it’s the two-seamer or four-seamer. He can pretty much put it where he wants.

“He might make a mistake or two in every game, but it never kills him. He pitches very well with men on base.

“It would be a shame for the Red Sox if he had to miss a lot of time, because you want him out there for at least 30 starts and 200-plus innings. If he does that, he’ll win 22-24 games and win the Cy Young. He’s that good.

“I know everyone’s been waiting for that and he’s had some injury setbacks in his career, but we started to see this the year he won 17 games and had the low ERA. He’s even better than that now.”

In that 2010 season, Buchholz went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA. He made 28 starts.

Given Buchholz’s physical limitations, it wouldn’t be improper to suggest that at some point he needs that two-week vacation (i.e. a DL stint) to get himself right.

Whether that time has come or comes later remains to be seen. As Buchholz said, he’ll monitor himself the next couple of days here to see where the soreness and stiffness is. If it’s better, he’ll likely do what he did in preparation for his previous start — push it back until it feels right. Or the Red Sox will decide that the time might be right for the two-week respite.

Either way, Buchholz is the Red Sox’ gravy train. The team knows it. He knows it. They used to ride the shoulders of Clemens and Pedro Martinez to outstanding seasons, but Buchholz is the guy now.

It appears that as he matures as a person and a pitcher, he understands that. That’s why it’s very mature of him to say that he needs to be comfortable physically to get back out there.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.
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