The God of baseball doctors — James Andrews — has spoken.
And his words to Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz Monday in Florida were in effect, “You’re OK.’’
Team doctors had pretty much known this for a few weeks after they conducted a series of MRIs, CT scans, and X-rays on Buchholz’s troublesome neck.
Buchholz has been experiencing inflammation, but why it didn’t clear up by now given he’s been on medication is anyone’s guess. But the word is loud and clear now. He’s got to pitch through any soreness and stiffness he may be having. He must continue with his throwing program, which will consist of more long-tossing, at least a few bullpen sessions, and a rehab assignment.
On the surface, there appears to have been a lot of wasted time. Buchholz was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA when he shut himself down after a start on June 8. Since then, there have been a couple of other shutdowns because Buchholz felt some soreness when he decelerated during his delivery. He saw this soreness and stiffness as a red flag, while the doctors saw it as an offshoot of not pitching through the situation.
“[Buchholz] is going to feel some, at times, some little stiffness or discomfort just by virtue of getting back into pitching shape,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said of Andrews’s findings. “[The doctor] felt that as he ramps back up . . . it’s not because of an injury. It’s more just reconditioning and getting the throwing arm back in shape.
“[Buchholz] comes back, I think, with a little bit more peace of mind,” Farrell said.
Buchholz has said he will not pitch until he’s 100 percent, meaning until that stiffness and soreness goes away. Now it appears that that is going to be there until he increases his throwing and things are flowing normally.
So now it’s up to Buchholz to fight through it. Two different sets of doctors now have told him there’s nothing wrong with his neck or shoulder except inflammation.
“I think he has more of an understanding of what he’s experienced in the progression of throwing that he now has an assurance the discomfort he’s feeling is not injury related,” Farrell said. “I would think there would be more readiness on his part to push through that.”
This is no small matter.
The return of Buchholz would be crucial if he can return to form in due time. Farrell didn’t have a timeline on Monday. But it sounds like a two-week process that will bring the Sox past the trading deadline.
So what do they do?
When the question recently was posed to principal owner John Henry about whether the Sox will obtain another starter, his response was, “What about Clay Buchholz?”
Can they assume Buchholz will work himself back into form? Are there any guarantees of that?
This is why the Red Sox are hovering around starting pitchers Jake Peavy, Yovani Gallardo, Bud Norris, and Kyle Lohse. With Matt Garza out of the mix after his trade by the Cubs to the Rangers, right now the Sox’ preference would be Peavy for two reasons. One, the Red Sox like the fact that Peavy is under contract for $14.5 million next season. And two, he has an extensive history with pitching coach Juan Nieves, who was the assistant pitching coach with the White Sox, worked with Peavy, and knows him inside-out.
In a perfect world the Red Sox do not want to trade for a starting pitcher. They’d rather that Buchholz come back. They also would love to see Brandon Workman (Monday night’s starter) pitch well enough to be a legitimate option as a starter.
Yet general manager Ben Cherington, Mike Hazen, and the Sox staff understand this is going to be a heated divisional and playoff race.
The Tampa Bay Rays aren’t going away, and they have a very solid staff and bullpen — even with a heart-attack closer such as Fernando Rodney, who has converted 15 straight save chances even though there have been times when he’s given manager Joe Maddon major agita.
The Rays probably won’t do much except add a cheap, under-the-radar late-inning reliever, and perhaps a bat at first base/outfield. Tampa doesn’t need starting pitching.
The Red Sox are in a completely different spot. They built their team with chemistry guys and have come so far. To throw it away because they don’t have enough starting pitching or because Buchholz can’t get over the hump would be tough to swallow because the Sox have the resources to take on money and the chips to send off in a major trade.
If Buchholz doesn’t realize how important he is, he should by now. He’s said the past few weeks that he would pitch if the Sox were in a pennant race in September, but that he hasn’t felt the urgency to return so he can let the discomfort subside completely because so many other pitchers are pitching well in his absence.
He can’t think that way.
He is the ace of the staff. His performance has defined that.
The Red Sox are tied in the loss column with Tampa Bay after dropping the opener of an important four-game series Monday night. And Buchholz won’t be there to help.
It is time to pitch. And maybe after this important opinion from the God of baseball doctors, he can get over that mental hump and assume the role he needs to assume — as the Red Sox’ ace.