Riding a tailwind of confidence, Clay Buchholz and the Red Sox flew home from Motown early Friday morning on the brink of a baseball bonanza.
All Buchholz needs to do Saturday for the Sox to complete their extraordinary, single-season rise from the bowels of the American League East to the World Series is do something he has never done: win a playoff game.
For all the respect Buchholz commands in baseball, he has yet to achieve a measure of postseason success, which often distinguishes the greats from the rest. He gets his next chance Saturday when he faces the Tigers and their sure-fire Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer at Fenway Park in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series.
A Detroit victory would force Game 7 Sunday. A Buchholz win would unleash a sudsy celebration and grant the lanky kid from Lumberton, Texas, a special place in franchise lore.
“Pitching in playoff games is one thing,’’ Buchholz said Thursday as he prepared for his next turn on the national stage. “Pitching in deciding playoff games is another.’’
Buchholz has experienced greatness, most memorably his no-hitter against the Orioles at Fenway as a rookie in 2007. And he has since established himself as one of baseball’s most promising talents, a two-time All-Star.
But he has yet to fulfill his potential, partly because of injuries that have blocked his path to postseason glory.
At 22, Buchholz was less than a year older than Xander Bogaerts, Boston’s 2013 player of the future, when the Sox won the 2007 World Series. But the Sox needed to win the title without Buchholz, just weeks after his no-hitter.
In a harbinger of the ailments that have since plagued him, Buchholz ran out of gas in ’07 on the road to the playoffs. He had increased his workload to a combined 148 innings in Double A, Triple A, and the bigs, after pitching 114 innings in Single A in ’06, his first full pro season.
The work proved too taxing, forcing the Sox to shut him down with shoulder fatigue.
“This was pretty much our last choice,’’ then-GM Theo Epstein said at the time of shelving his rookie phenom.
Buchholz earned a World Series ring for his regular-season contribution. But injuries have since cut short two seasons, 2011 because of a lower back ailment, and 2013 due to a strained neck muscle.
Until this month, Buchholz had made only one postseason appearance. With the Sox facing elimination in the Division Series against the Angels at Fenway in 2009, he carried a 5-1 lead into the sixth inning before he began to melt down. The Sox ultimately lost the series when Jonathan Papelbon blew a 6-4 lead in the ninth.
When Buchholz returned to the postseason Oct. 7, he started Game 3 of the Division Series against the Rays with only modest improvement. He managed to survive six innings at Tropicana Field before he departed with the score tied at 3.
But the Sox lost again, 5-4, when Koji Uehara surrendered a walkoff home run to Jose Lobaton.
Then came Buchholz’s blowup in Game 2 of the ALCS. With the Sox trailing the Tigers, 1-0, last Sunday on Yawkey Way, Buchholz again faltered in the sixth inning, surrendering four runs on a solo home run by Miguel Cabrera, a run-scoring double by Victor Martinez, and a two-run homer by Alex Avila.
Was it fatigue again? Buchholz’s neck injury had sidelined him for three months until Sept. 10.
“I don’t think it’s just a matter of fatigue,’’ Sox manager John Farrell said, citing Buchholz’s lapses in execution, consistency, and ability to maintain momentum.
David Ortiz cleaned up Buchholz’s mess in Game 2 with a tying grand slam in the eighth inning, which set the stage for Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s walkoff single in the ninth for a 6-5 victory. The win went to Uehara.
Now Buchholz has something to prove.
“I need to minimize the damage a little better,’’ he said, reflecting on lessons he may have learned from Game 2.
He hopes he benefited from watching John Lackey handcuff the Tigers in Game 3. Buchholz noted the effectiveness of Lackey’s breaking ball as he combined with the bullpen on a 1-0 shutout.
“I didn’t throw too many curveballs last time out,’’ Buchholz said. “If you have a feel for the pitch, I think that’s a good pitch for a group that’s as aggressive as the Tigers are.
“There are multiple things I can do differently. I definitely want it to go a little bit better.’’
Farrell, who is expected to quickly yank Buchholz if he wobbles again, seemed encouraged by the righthander’s study habits.
“I think he learned some things with pitch selection and areas in which to try to exploit,’’ Farrell said. “I know he’s ready and primed when Saturday gets here.’’
When Buchholz was healthy this season, he was sensational, going 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA while holding opponents to a .199 batting average. Now it’s the postseason. This is his moment.
“It feels like it’s been three weeks since I pitched,’’ Buchholz said. “[I am] definitely looking forward to getting back out there and giving it another run.’’