Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz? Which pitcher do you go with in Game 1 of the playoffs?
Lester has pitched very well for the past two months and has worked more than 200 innings. He deserves it, doesn’t he?
Then there’s Buchholz. Talk about a shutdown pitcher . . . he missed three months of the season and then had two starts in which he didn’t allow an earned run in 11 innings. He’s 11-0 with a 1.51 ERA. In his next start, on Sunday, he’ll be free to pitch deep into the game. Given the absolute dominance of his season, shouldn’t Buchholz be the No. 1 starter?
Yes, he should.
Manager John Farrell won’t even discuss who might be the top starter in the playoffs until the Red Sox officially clinch the American League East. He announced that John Lackey, Buchholz, and Lester will pitch in the final-weekend series, but he did not disclose the order.
“We haven’t mapped it out as to who will start Friday, Saturday, or Sunday,” Farrell said. “We have to factor in off days next week and the potential for those four days off [before the playoffs start]. We don’t want to get guys too far away from a start. What rotation they fall under has yet to be determined.”
When asked if the Game 1 starter will be determined by who deserves it or by matchups, Farrell said, “I’m not trying to dodge the question. We haven’t looked at it that close. It can’t be matchups at this point. We’re just going on those three guys who will be rested enough to pitch in Baltimore. And we’ll be sure we get everybody to the mound before that weekend to get the most recent action leading into what might be following that. We’ll delve into that more when we get closer.”
We’re going to assume the Game 1 starter won’t be Lackey. We know the first two games will be at Fenway and the potential teams are Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Texas, Kansas City, Baltimore, and New York. I reluctantly included the Yankees, because I don’t think they’re going to get there.
Lester was the Opening Day starter and he’s gone an impressive 14-8 this season, including 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA in his last three starts. He’s eclipsed 200 innings for fifth time in six years and should be well-rested before he enters the playoffs.
Lester has had his worst record against the contenders. Against the Orioles, he’s 1-2 with a 4.00 ERA, although that’s not horrible. He’s 1-0 vs. the Indians with a 3.86 ERA; 0-1 against the Royals; 2-1 with a 3.29 ERA in four starts against the Yankees; 2-1 with a 4.32 ERA in four starts against the Rays; and 0-0 with a 4.50 ERA in two starts vs. the Rangers.
Buchholz’s numbers are certainly going to look good against anyone’s. He’s pitched 95⅓ innings, half as many as Lester, and you could make the case he’s fresher and better. He’s 6-0 at Fenway with a 1.88 ERA and a 1.064 WHIP compared with Lester’s 6-1 with a 3.25 ERA and a 1.170 WHIP.
Buchholz’s numbers against the contenders are impressive. He’s 1-0, with a 0.00 ERA in one start vs. the Orioles; 1-0, 2.25 in one start vs. Kansas City; 3-0, 0.50 in three starts vs. the Yankees; and 2-0, 0.00 with 13 scoreless innings in two starts vs. the Rays.
The other theory is whether the Sox want their “shutdown” pitcher setting the tone for Game 1. What Farrell has to decide is whether there’s even much difference between Lester and Buchholz in that regard.
Before he got hurt, Buchholz had overtaken Lester as the No. 1 pitcher on the staff, as he was on his way to having a Cy Young Award season.
Lester had a good start to the season but then went through a six-start malaise during which he lost the mechanics of his delivery and couldn’t get his cutter over the plate.
Both were a huge reason for the 20-8 start that kicked off this successful campaign.
Is it as simple as Lester gets it automatically for being there all year? Is it flip a coin? Is it matchups? Is it which pitcher gives us the best chance to go up 1-0 at Fenway?
If you’re facing Baltimore, do you think the lefthanded Lester can offset lefthanded hitters Chris Davis and Nick Markakis, or are you more worried about righthanded hitters Adam Jones (4 for 8 vs. Lester this season) and Manny Machado (3 for 8)? If it’s Cleveland, you’d be trying to offset Asdrubal Cabrera (a switch hitter; 4 for 7 vs. Lester).
You can go right down each lineup and see who you want to offset, and really, you’re not going to go wrong with Buchholz or Lester. When it comes down to it, there’s no hitter among the wild-card contenders who have absolutely lit up either pitcher except for the couple we’ve mentioned.
Lester and Buchholz will pitch the first two games, anyway; it’s whatever preference you have for the order in which they appear. If Lester can win Game 1, it would be comforting to know Buchholz could put you ahead two games to none. If Lester were to lose, you’d know you had Buchholz pitching Game 2 to hopefully even things up.
Since it’s so close, and since matchups won’t be a huge factor, don’t you reward the guy who has been there all season? That would be Lester.
Everyone on the team would understand that. It would cause no friction or hard feelings or raised eyebrows.
The simple solution — Lester would be the best choice.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.