TORONTO — Clay Buchholz might not realize how important he is to the Red Sox, but the Red Sox realize how important the righthander is to them.
He is Boston’s only potential shutdown pitcher in the playoffs. He can be the guy at the top of the rotation that can get you off on the right foot and set the tone in a playoff series.
The Sox really don’t have another option. The rest of the staff has exhibited signs they have the ability to be that guy, but you know a stopper when you see one.
The Tigers have the top-rated rotation in the American League — 58-30 – entering Tuesday’s games. They had a collective 3.43 ERA and had allowed opponents a .244 batting average. Let’s face it, the Tigers have the potential to win the World Series.
Justin Verlander is throwing with 97-99-mile-per-hour velocity again. They have 17-game winner Max Scherzer, who is the favorite to win the Cy Young Award. Both are shutdown guys. The Tigers rotation also features standouts Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello.
The Rays, a potential playoff opponent, rank second. We know David Price is a shutdown pitcher and when and if Matt Moore returns, he could be in that category as well. Tampa Bay’s starters are 49-33 with a 3.87 ERA.
The A’s are third with a 49-38 record and a 3.92 ERA among starters. They have a consistent five-man rotation headed by Bartolo Colon, who is 14-4 with a 2.75 ERA, another shutdown type of guy with a 1.164 WHIP.
The Sox saw another potential playoff team in the Royals, who rank fifth with a starters ERA of 3.93. They have James Shields, whose numbers (7-8, 3.33) mirror John Lackey’s, but there’s something about Shields’s presence that oozes ace.
The Red Sox are in sixth on the starting pitcher depth chart ahead of the Rangers, both with 3.95 ERAs. The difference, however, is that they have Yu Darvish, who is 12-5 with a 2.64 ERA, not to mention 207 strikeouts in 152⅔ innings. Right behind him is lefty Derek Holland, who is 9-6 with a 3.07 ERA. And No. 3 on their list is Matt Garza.
If Buchholz is in the mix, then a Buchholz-Jon Lester-Peavy trio is competitive.
But as good as Verlander-Scherzer-Sanchez? As good as Price-Moore-Jeremy Hellickson? As good as Darvish-Holland-Garza? As good as Colon-A.J. Griffin-Jarrod Parker?
This long absence by Buchholz — he hasn’t pitched since June 8 with shoulder woes — could turn out in Boston’s favor.
He will have fresh legs and a fresh arm — unless he suffers a relapse.
He threw Tuesday at Rogers Centre and will amp it up Wednesday. One of the issues will become how many rehab starts he’ll make before his return. The minor league seasons end early in September, his last chance for real competitive starts.
The Red Sox could have him pitch simulated games and/or go to the instructional league for some work. Buchholz is on one of those strict throwing programs, a pet peeve of this reporter. Sometimes pitchers simply spend too much time going step by step in getting back to the mound to the point of ridiculous delays. Even doctors in the sports medicine business have shaken their heads at how long this process takes.
The progression: from throwing on flat ground, to throwing on the mound, or throwing a bullpen, or throwing to hitters, and then simulated games, and rehab starts. Holy cow! It’s mind-imploding.
Obviously, what the Sox have to be concerned about is whether Buchholz can rebuild his strength to the point where he can be dominant again. Is there enough time? And what if Buchholz is holding back because he doesn’t want to reinjure himself?
All of those are X-factors, of course.
What the Sox have is starting pitching depth with Felix Doubront, Lackey, and Ryan Dempster. But the other playoff-contending teams have this as well. The Tigers, as we mentioned, have Fister and Porcello. The Rays have Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, and Roberto (Fausto Carmona) Hernandez.
Dempster pitched well Tuesday against a tough Blue Jays lineup. As we pointed out Monday, Dempster, as well as Lackey, Doubront, and even Lester, are pitching to stay in the starting rotation if and when Buchholz returns.
Buchholz has been out about nine weeks. When he did pitch, there was no better ace or stopper in all of baseball. He was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA and a 1.020 WHIP. He made the All-Star team and if he hadn’t been hurt he likely would have started that game.
The Red Sox seem to be OK as far as making the playoffs, although we wrote something similar at this time in 2011 and the great collapse occurred. Let’s assume that doesn’t happen, what the Red Sox are really gearing for is October.
There are some pretty tough staffs Boston will have to match up against. Buchholz is the key.
Buchholz is capable of being comparable to Verlander/Scherzer, Price, Darvish, and Colon. If he isn’t, the Sox offense will have to carry the day.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.