ST. PETERSBURG, Fla – It was three months of tedious and frustrating baby-step throwing programs, rehab outings, setbacks, and daily updates.
Clay Buchholz finally broke through the curtain and onto the stage — a big one against David Price and the Tampa Bay Rays — with five scoreless innings Tuesday night in a 2-0 Red Sox win in Buchholz’s first major league start since June 8 because of shoulder/neck issues.
This, folks, is called the gravy on top, the icing on the cake.
This is the Sox acquiring an elite pitcher in September and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Buchholz, now 10-0 with a 1.61 ERA, continued his trek to be baseball’s best pitcher. He had established that with his 9-0, 1.71 start to the season, and three months later he showed amazingly little rust.
“After watching that,” said one veteran baseball executive on hand at Tropicana Field, “then it’s more good news for the Red Sox. First time out, very impressive. He was throwing all of his pitches. Good command. Got behind a couple of guys but came right back. He had a good curveball and offspeed pitches in general.”
The next three starts for Buchholz are all about building back up to being the elite pitcher he was. He outpitched Price in this battle of teams who may see one another in the playoffs.
Buchholz threw 74 pitches, 44 strikes, walked one, and struck out six, using his full repertoire of pitches. He said he had more left in the tank, but he’s on a strict program and Buchholz is going to adhere to the plan.
“I had a lot of three-ball counts, and that’s probably the worst thing I could say about it,” Buchholz said. “I was able to miss the fat part of the bat and get some ground balls. Getting a couple of runners thrown out helps. It felt good.
“I just want to build up now and maybe after next time I won’t have to worry about pitch counts. I just want to help this team in October. It’s been fun to watch them even though it’s been frustrating not to participate. I’ve had to be patient and now I’m able to get out there. I just want to do my part.”
He had three minor league rehab starts in which he didn’t look this good. One question that was answered was would he able to get his velocity back (92-94 miles per hour)? It had been more in the 88-90 range.
The answer was yes. He threw 92-93 m.p.h.
Buchholz threw a good changeup and cutter, which were two of his five pitches that manager John Farrell hoped he would have command of.
Buchholz didn’t have a clean game, but it was efficient. He had two clean innings out of five, but he got help from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who gunned down two runners trying to steal.
Pedro Martinez, who has been around the Red Sox on this road trip as part of his duties as special assistant to general manager Ben Cherington, was excited about Buchholz’s return.
“I’ll tell you, nobody was more upset that he got hurt more than Clay,” Martinez said. “He was heartbroken. The year he was having was unbelievable. He was the best pitcher in baseball. What he was doing was amazing out there and then to get hurt and have that all stop . . . that’s devastating.”
Martinez is right. Buchholz was Max Scherzer even before Max Scherzer. Who knows what he might have been — 20-0? 20-1? That was the dominance he had exhibited.
“By the time the playoffs start,” predicted Martinez, “he’ll be ready to be that pitcher again. He’s going to go about it little by little. Build up to it. But he’s going to get there, and when he does he’s going to be a big factor in the playoffs.”
Said Saltalamacchia, “He’s so quick to the plate that he puts you in that position. He’s a great pitcher. For a guy who missed that amount of time, he had it going. If you want to nitpick, I’d say fastball command could have been better.”
“He’s slowly going to get a feel for everything,” said Martinez. “He throws a lot of pitches, so you have to be patient that he gets the feel for them one by one and a little at a time. But I’m telling you, by the playoffs he should have a good idea of where he is. I think he’s going to be a big factor.”
We said earlier in his injury rehab that Buchholz was vital to the success of the Red Sox postseason. But then Jon Lester, Jake Peavy, and John Lackey started pitching really well and the urgency for Buchholz to return and pitch as well wasn’t as pronounced.
Buchholz said all along he wasn’t pressured into returning until he was 100 percent because of the success of the staff, and the team.
Barring aches and pains, the Sox have just added an elite pitcher to their staff.
If Buchholz continues to progress, where do the Sox put him in the playoff rotation? It’s a nice problem to have, but a decision nonetheless. The Sox already made the decision to skip a Felix Doubront start. It probably wouldn’t be tough to remove Ryan Dempster if they had to. But in a five-game series with two offdays, where do they pitch Lester, Peavy, and Lackey?
Buchholz has forced that conversation again with his outing, which is good news for the Red Sox.
He was predictably nervous being out there.
“Anxious is probably the word I’m looking for,” Buchholz said. “I got here a little bit earlier than usual. It’s been a while.”
“I’m sure there was adrenaline going on there,” said Farrell. “He wouldn’t be human if there wasn’t a little nervous energy. You’d expect it, but he corralled it. It was really impressive how tough his secondary pitches were.
“A healthy Clay Buchholz is going to be a great addition. He showed it tonight. We’ve got three weeks to build him up from a stamina standpoint. To see him walk to the mound, I think gave everybody a boost.”
And the competition? A great big sigh.