ST. LOUIS — If Clay Buchholz had said, “No, I’m not going out there unless I’m 100 percent,” it wouldn’t have been that surprising since he made a similar declaration during his three-month hiatus with shoulder/neck stiffness.
But Buchholz took the mound at Busch Stadium Sunday night for Game 4 of the World Series and pitched as well as he could for as long as he could, with a dead arm that capped his velocity at 89 miles per hour.
“Tough to think about what I went through to get to this point,” Buchholz said. “It might — and hopefully not — be the last time it ever happens being in the World Series. If I hadn’t tried, I don’t think I’d ever be able to live with myself. That’s what this time of year is all about.”
Buchholz is right. If you can’t suck it up for the World Series, when can you suck it up? Buchholz is so gifted he relied on his stuff to get through four innings, allowing one unearned run despite missing 5 miles per hour on his fastball.
Yet Buchholz located the fastball well. The Cardinals will watch the video and likely shake their heads in disbelief that they couldn’t hit it. In some ways it’s like Koji Uehara, who throws his fastball 89 but his split-fingered pitch is so good it makes his fastball seem faster.
Buchholz was throwing his curve and cutter and changeup as well. He still had a nice feel for those pitches while locating his fastball. He was pinch-hit for by Mike Carp in the fifth inning and his night was over after 66 pitches.
“I felt good,” Buchholz said. “It was a conscious effort not to overthrow, knowing I was not going to have the fastball velocity that I usually have. I created more movement on a couple of my pitches and had defensive plays behind me. I was able to stay away from the big inning.”
Four innings was a popular prediction for Buchholz’s start, based on how he threw between starts and his body language. It seemed as if Buchholz didn’t really think he could pitch, and some predicted he wouldn’t pitch at all.
Even as late as his pregame warm-ups, it seemed like Buchholz wasn’t letting loose. He seemed restricted. It didn’t appear he could follow through. There were all types of signs that his night wasn’t going to go well. Yet, when all was said and done, he got out of it with a 1-1 tie.
Buchholz is the first Red Sox pitcher to be lifted from a World Series game in which he pitched only four innings and allowed just one run.
Buchholz said there was a time right after his last outing, against Detroit in Game 6 of the ALCS, that he didn’t think he’d pitch again this year because he was so sore.
“But it just got better and better every day,” he said. “It got to the point to where two or three days ago, I knew I’d be able to go out there and give them as much as I could. That’s all they were asking of me. I told them I’d go out for as long as they needed me.”
He said his effort level Sunday “was about 80 percent, but 100 percent of 80 percent.”
“I was gonna go out and compete,” he added. “That’s what I did today. You get pinch-hit for and there’s nothing I could do about that. I was ready to go out there for the fifth. I could have done that and beyond. Obviously, I gave it all that I could.”
Buchholz is the Red Sox’ most talented pitcher. The fact he could hold the Cardinals to one run with a dead arm is a testament to that talent. The problem now is what can the Sox do for Buchholz going forward so he can finally pitch a full season?
It seems like Felix Doubront is consistently called out for not being in shape or not being able to get over the wall to become a 200-inning pitcher. But Doubront pitches more consistently than Buchholz does.
The Sox have to figure out why Buchholz breaks down so often because there aren’t many pitchers in baseball who have his kind of stuff.
Buchholz was 9-0 before he got hurt and was 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA for the year. The numbers sound great, but at age 29 he’s never made 30 starts in a season, never pitched 200 innings. His high is 189⅓ in 2012. His most complete year was 2010, when he went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA.
You can see that his stuff is so good he can adapt to anything.
“In some ways this was good for me to experience because I’m usually a max-effort guy who throws as hard as he can out there for as long as I can,” Buchholz said. “This made me hold back and just throw the ball naturally rather than rear back. The velocity wasn’t there but I was able to locate my pitches well. Hopefully I don’t have to go through something like this again. It’s hasn’t been fun.”
Not for anyone.
Buchholz, however, feels the resolve to help out in Game 7, if needed. He thinks he can pitch a few innings in a game that Jake Peavy is projected to start, in Buchholz’s spot in the rotation.
Buchholz certainly kept the Sox in Game 4 during his start. And for that, he’s grateful.
And he’s grateful that a World Series opportunity didn’t pass him by.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.