ATLANTA — The most popular phrase being heard about Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz: “He’s hard to watch right now.”
That was uttered by scouts, by former pitchers turned broadcasters, and by media who watched Buchholz walk eight in three-plus innings Monday.
This about a pitcher who obviously is talented. This about a player who once pitched a no-hitter, who won 17 games in a season, who was unbeatable over his first 10 starts a year ago when he looked as if he might go 25-0.
Buchholz needs a break from himself. Let him sit a start or two, work on his mechanics on the side. The Sox finally won a game Monday, beating the Braves, 8-6, but if they’re to do anything this season, Buchholz, 60-37 over his career, needs to be the No. 2 starter on this team again.
He admitted that perhaps there is some residual effect from the shoulder/neck injury he suffered last season. Not physical, but it messed up his mechanics and therefore his head.
“I think it has a lot to do with that,” Buchholz said. “Whenever you’re hurt you try to throw a way that doesn’t hurt and that might not be exactly the same way you pitched prior to that. Little rust in between last year’s mechanics and this year’s mechanics. Even in spring training, I wasn’t 100 percent in tune. Hard to do it during the season. In the bullpen I felt really good commanding. It’s got to be second nature. I have to get to the point where I’m not thinking about anything.”
In Buchholz’s last four starts he’s pitched 18 innings, allowed 33 hits, 15 walks, and 19 earned runs. His 7.02 ERA is the highest among major league starters. In his 50 innings this season, he’s put 99 runners on base.
If the disabled list is an option, could it be termed arm fatigue?
The side session Buchholz had with pitching coach Juan Nieves didn’t yield positive results. Everyone is frustrated.
“Little bit of over-rotating over the rubber,” Nieves said Monday. “He was spectacular in the bullpen but it didn’t translate into the game. It was probably the best bullpen I’d seen him throw.
“There’s a lot of work to be done. He’s a lot better than that. We’ll get video and film his bullpen and see it more. I’ve seen some progress. Almost looked like he was trying to make perfect pitches at times.”
Manager John Farrell indicated that Buchholz making his start five days from now was something his staff was going to discuss after the cameras and reporters left the clubhouse.
“We’ve got to look at this a little bit closer,” Farrell said. “There’s no determination about five days from now. We’ve got to continue to talk about what’s best for him and us.”
Buchholz has minor league options, but as a player with five years or more of service he would have to consent to be sent down to straighten out.
Another choice is to have him skip a start or two, work out of the bullpen, and then have the team try to incorporate him back in the rotation. But with Felix Doubront already on the DL and Brandon Workman up in his place, the Sox don’t have many options. Because Chris Capuano has been a short reliever for most of the season, it’s probably a stretch to have him start again.
The Sox would have to adjust their bullpen if Buchholz joined it, but the only relievers who have options are Junichi Tazawa and Burke Badenhop and they’re both pitching well enough to stay. Craig Breslow, Doubront, Andrew Miller, and Edward Mujica are all out of options.
Asked if he would be willing to take a step back and not take the ball his next turn, Buchholz said, “No, because I’m healthy. If I wasn’t healthy that might be an option in my mind, but that’s not really helping matters right now. That will come from higher up and I’m sure I’ll hear from them shortly.”
What he’s gone through after the injury following last season’s 9-0 start has been tough on Buchholz.
“It’s not fun, I know that,” he said. “I felt really good in the bullpen before the game. I never really caught my breath today and I struggled to get it. I had a long inning and then I wasn’t ready for the heat. I think it got to me a little bit today.”
The conditions were hot and humid, but being from Texas, it wasn’t something Buchholz hasn’t experienced before.
There’s definitely some over-thinking and putting pressure on himself. Buchholz knows the mechanics that work, and the ones he’s had since the injury that don’t work. What he’s been trying to say is it’s not easy to keep doing the right mechanics when you’ve been repeating the bad ones for so long.
“It’s a lot easier in the bullpen trying to do it than when you’re out there thinking about getting big league hitters out, thinking about three different types of mechanics that you were doing in the bullpen and trying to take them on the mound,” he said.
“[It’s] something I’ve got to get through. It’s a matter of getting my mechanics right and not having to think about them out there.”
Nieves has knocked himself out trying to find the miracle cure. Farrell, who has known Buchholz since 2007, doesn’t see anything physical at all. He does acknowledge a possible “mental and fundamental” bridge that Buchholz seems to have to cross.
That’s what Farrell, Nieves, general manager Ben Cherington, who is with the team, and assistant GM Mike Hazen, likely will discuss.
“I’m sure there are a lot of things going through his mind,” Nieves said. “We don’t intend to have him that way. We know what’s there. Most of the action on his pitches is taking place outside the strike zone, which isn’t very good. A lot of walks . . . that’s something we don’t preach. We preach attacking the strike zone.”
Buchholz seemed downtrodden and frustrated. He was able to see a silver lining in that the Red Sox won after losing 10 straight.
“That’s the most important thing, it’s not about me,” he said. “That was awesome to see a rally and it all happened with two outs. They did a good job of the slack I left off.”
Buchholz remains the most talented pitcher on the staff, so the Sox have to handle the next move delicately. Buchholz seems lost.
He’s got a thousand things roaming through his mind.
He needs a break from himself. A chance to step back for a start or two and just allow the mechanics that need to be second nature him become just that.
The Red Sox need Buchholz to be their next big fix.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.