After four starts, the Red Sox are still trying to figure out Clay Buchholz.
Is he a typical No. 5 starter? His 7.71 ERA and 0-2 record would seem to say he is. Or can he return to the form of last year when he was 9-0 in his first 12 starts with a 1.71 ERA before he went on the disabled list for three months?
Buchholz lasted just 2⅓ innings Monday against the Orioles, his shortest outing since he went 1⅔ on Oct. 1, 2012, at Yankee Stadium, and his shortest start ever at Fenway Park. He gave up six runs to the Orioles on seven hits and a walk with one strikeout. It was the second time in four starts that he allowed six runs.
Buchholz, along with Mike Napoli and John Lackey, slept at Fenway Park Sunday night because of the quick turnaround. Buchholz said although the early start time was “awkward,” it wasn’t the reason for his performance.
“I didn’t execute some pitches that got hit,” he said. “They’ve got a good lineup over there. You’ve got to steadily maintain the execution of each pitch that you throw. If you don’t, you’re going to get hurt. That’s what happened.”
Buchholz struggled in the first inning but kept the Orioles off the scoreboard. Of the 16 pitches he threw, just six went for strikes, with no first-pitch strikes to the four batters he faced.
He rebounded in the second, though, retiring the Orioles on three ground outs and needing just eight pitches, all for strikes.
But the third inning was disastrous. He gave up singles to the first five batters, allowing three runs, before he retired Adam Jones on a run-scoring fielder’s choice. After two more batters — and two more hits and two more runs — Buchholz was done.
“He was a little bit flat. Couldn’t seem to stop the momentum in that third inning,” said manager John Farrell after the Red Sox’ 7-6 loss.
“Where he needed a strikeout in that third inning to record an out and possibly shut down that threat, that was elusive today. They notoriously swing early in the count and when he mislocated on a couple of pitches, they were able to get some base hits.”
Like any good catcher, David Ross put some of the blame on himself.
“I don’t have a lot of answers,” Ross said. “Probably a little bit may fall on me. We went in with the game plan of ‘Let’s mix some pitches and throw a little bit of everything and try to slow them down because they’re really an aggressive team.’ That probably backfired the second time through [the order].
“Looking back, I probably would have liked to establish the fastball a little more. That’s my personal preference. But that was our game plan going in and Buck likes to pitch that way.”
While that may offer some answers to Buchholz’s performance Monday, it does little to assess his season. In four starts, spanning 18⅔ innings, he has allowed 19 runs on 33 hits, with three walks and 16 strikeouts.
“The quality of the strike, of course, has to be better,” said pitching coach Juan Nieves. “If the ball’s supposed to be in, make it way in. If it’s supposed to be down, keep it down. One of the biggest challenges of both him and [Jake] Peavy is the ball leaks. Keep the ball true against lefties and righties. Don’t let the ball run back to the middle of the plate.
“He threw a lot of strikes [Monday]. Unfortunately, the balls found holes.”
For Buchholz, who acknowledged his season to date is “not good,” it’s still a matter of building arm strength — and confidence — after being sidelined so long last season with neck and shoulder ailments.
“It all starts with arm strength,” he said. “Arm strength creates movement on the pitches that I throw and a couple of them are flat right now. Sinker’s getting some sink, but not on every pitch that I throw it with. It’s a little different than the start I had last year. Everything was working pretty well for me last year at the beginning of the season.
“So it just comes from arm strength and then confidence. It’s hard to go out there and be confident whenever you’re getting hit around.”
It’s a work in process.
“Absolutely,” said Nieves. “We all know how he ended [last] season. There’s still a little climb. It’s a long season. My biggest question with him is always health. How do you feel?”
Which is a question Buchholz has struggled to answer in a positive way over the last few seasons.
“He’s a little bit behind the 8-ball,” Nieves said “But we knew [that] coming into camp. That’s the reason he started the fifth game.’’