Before he was so rudely interrupted in June, Clay Buchholz was, in his words, “just trying to ride the wave.” The lanky Red Sox righthander, who looks as though he could be shooting the pier at Huntington Beach, was in the middle of the greatest ride of his career, a 9-0 start that had him in the forefront of the chase for the Cy Young Award, which no Boston pitcher has won since Pedro Martinez in 2000.
Then came the neck soreness that followed his awkward fielding of a comebacker against the Angels in early June, and what originally was listed as a day-to-day issue stretched into three months with Buchholz off the grid while his teammates continued their most unlikely playoff run. Now, after an encouraging September re-entry, Buchholz is part of the starting rotation that will lead Boston into its first postseason appearance in four years, and will pitch Game 3 Monday.
Going into spring training, Buchholz appeared to be the surest of the starters. Not that that was saying much in the wake of the franchise’s most wretched season since 1965. Jon Lester was coming off the worst campaign of his career (9-14) while John Lackey was returning from Tommy John surgery on his elbow that had sidelined him for all of 2012. Buchholz, meanwhile, had gone 11-8 for a club that lost 93 games.
Four of his losses, though, came in the last month, capped by a 10-2 beating at New York Oct. 1 in which Buchholz was tagged for eight earned runs in an inning and two-thirds. Then, just as he resumed baseball in February, Buchholz strained his right hamstring while covering first base just 20 minutes into the first workout of the year.
Once the season began, though, he was relentlessly reliable, cranking out a dozen solid starts and allowing no earned runs in four of them.
So when his neck suddenly began bothering him, Buchholz and the club took it as a caution flag. He missed his next start, then another. Finally on June 18, the club put him on the disabled list until doctors could figure out what was wrong.
The luxury of waiting
It wasn’t Buchholz’s first time on the DL. He’d torn a fingernail in 2008 and ended up struggling through a brutal season (2-9, 6.75) during which he was sent down to Double A for a reset. He’d pulled a hamstring in 2010, endured a stress fracture in his back that shut him down for the 2011 campaign in mid-June, then last year was felled by a “gastrointestinal situation” that turned out to be esophagitis.
This time, though, was more worrisome.
“This was the first time it’s been an upper extremity,” Buchholz said. “The shoulder, elbow, arm is sort of the lifeline of a pitcher, so it was a little bit more difficult this time.”
Was it a recurrence of the recent problem with the AC joint in his shoulder? An inflamed bursa sac? A strained trapezius muscle? Or just simple soreness that he could push through?
“I tried throwing through it, pitching through it, and it was pretty painful,” Buchholz said. “I definitely think that if I would have just kept throwing through it that something would have gone wrong. It was just the feeling from it.
“That’s why I went to [sports orthopedist James Andrews] and saw him and got his insight on it and took the route he had mentioned and he was pretty spot-on.”
Andrews counseled patience and a progressive throwing program. That was fine with the Sox, who’d watched Lackey pitch through pain and end up losing a year to major surgery.
“A player’s health is the priority, and every step we took, every opinion we gathered on the medical side felt like there would come a point where he was free and clear to move on,” said manager John Farrell, who was Boston’s pitching coach when Buchholz made his major league debut in 2007. “But if we rushed that, we had a chance to set him back and we weren’t willing to risk that.”
Fortunately, the club had the luxury of waiting. The Sox led the division by 2½ games when Buchholz went on the DL, and the rest of the rotation was solid.
“It made it easier not to rush to come back, to make a decision and say, ‘OK, I don’t feel quite there,’ ” Buchholz said. “It was easier for me to say, ‘OK, these guys are doing their job. They brought a couple of young guys up that have filled in some roles that they needed to fill in, the starting rotation is doing their job, so I can wait until it’s healed.’ ”
Allen Webster was called up from Pawtucket, and Jake Peavy arrived from the White Sox at the end of July.
Meanwhile, Buchholz did what he could to remain involved.
“That was the big thing,” he said. “From Day 1, when they put me on the DL and I was on the bench watching the game, I always had a ball in my hand, messing with my grip, making sure that it was still fresh in my mind.
“That was a big key for me. I would just constantly hold my changeup, hold my curveball, cutter, two-seamer. I think that helped out a lot.”
The enforced inactivity was no novelty for Buchholz, who became a father for the second time last month.
“He’s dealt with that before, so I think all that has helped him deal with it this year,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “It can mentally kind of drain you, especially with the team playing as well as they’re playing.
“You want to be a part of it, you want to be out there helping the team, but he’s been around a while and he’s dealt with it before, so it’s something he’s familiar with. He was able to mentally prepare and do what you’ve got to do.”
Easing him back in
The question was, what would the expectations be when Buchholz finally returned? Would the string of W’s continue? Would the magic of spring have vanished by late summer? Would Buchholz have to go back to Fort Myers mode?
“I definitely don’t think you can pick right up from where that left off, but at the same time, I was always taught that the game is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical,” Buchholz reckoned. “You’ve got to be mentally right to go out there.
“I always knew it was going to be tough being off that long to come back and step right in to where I was at, but I’m still confident in my pitches.”
The challenge was to regain his command and consistency while still being prudent. With the Sox more than eight games up and the divisional crown in sight, it made no sense to risk a September shutdown.
So Buchholz threw 74 pitches in five innings of a 2-0 victory at Tampa Bay Sept. 10 and then 91 in six innings of a 9-2 rout of the Yankees Sept. 15 before going 106 in six innings of a 4-2 loss to Toronto Sept. 21. In his final start, he got up to 113 pitches in seven innings of a 12-3 win over Baltimore Sept. 27. He finished 12-1 on the season, with a 1.74 ERA.
“I looked at it with an open mind,” said Farrell. “His first couple of starts back were almost like an extension of spring training. You’re looking to build number of pitches thrown and innings.
“What the performance was, we stayed neutral on. That being the case, whatever he performed like was certainly acceptable, but it’s been outstanding given three months off.”
So it comes around that where Buchholz is in October is where folks figured he’d be in February — one of the pitchers who just might propel the Sox to another championship.
Buchholz already has one ring from his 2007 service with the big club, when he became the first Boston rookie to pitch a no-hitter before being shut down for the season to protect his fatigued shoulder. He wouldn’t mind earning a second one on the mound.