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Clay Buchholz takes another baby step

Clay Buchholz pumped his fist after inducing a double-play grounder to end the third inning.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

He was strumming his guitar to a country tune as he sat near his locker before the game. Clay Buchholz had every reason to be singing the blues based on his disappointing season, but he looked relaxed hours before he took the mound in an emergency start Saturday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

And he looked relaxed on the mound, tossing scoreless innings until Arizona took a 2-1 lead in the fourth. He came out for the fifth and allowed a single and a fly out before getting pulled as he crossed the 70-pitch threshold.

Buchholz did not get the decision, but he did his part to help the Sox earn a 6-3 victory.


Buchholz took the place of Steven Wright, who hurt his shoulder diving back to second base last Sunday in Los Angeles and was forced to miss the start. John Farrell chose Buchholz because the team had decided the righthander would stay in the bullpen and be called on for moments like these.

Buchholz was making his first start since July 2, when he allowed six runs in a 21-2 loss to the Angels. He was demoted to the bullpen right after.

Buchholz was 2-8 with a 6.31 ERA in his 13 starts, but had seemingly found himself as a reliever — posting a 3.20 ERA.

Buchholz vowed that he was going to simplify things and treat it like an extended relief appearance, which, in essence it was. Since Buchholz wasn’t stretched out as a starter, Farrell said prior to the game that 70 pitches would be Buchholz’s high-water mark.

Buchholz started the night nicely. He got through the first three innings without a glitch. He retired the side in the first and then walked Jake Lamb to lead off the second.

But he induced a double-play grounder by Rickie Weeks Jr. and then retired Yasmany Tomas for the final out of the inning.


Nice and easy. In the third, he again walked the leadoff batter — Chris Owings — but wound up throwing an inning-ending double-play ball to No. 9 hitter Socrates Brito.

Buchholz entered the fourth with a 1-0 lead. He retired the first batter, Jean Segura, with a liner to third. Michael Bourn stroked a single to center, the first hit off Buchholz. He walked Paul Goldschmidt after being ahead, 0 and 2.

After a double steal, the Diamondbacks tied it on Lamb’s ground out and pulled ahead on Weeks’s single to right.

Buchholz got charged with another run in the fifth, which came around on Bourn’s single off Robbie Ross Jr. Buchholz’s final line was three runs on three hits and three walks in 4⅓ innings (71 pitches).

Buchholz had allowed one hit over a scoreless 10⅔ -inning streak before surrendering the two runs in the fourth.

“I tried to treat it like an extended bullpen outing,’’ Buchholz said. “Prior to going out I was thinking about being in the stretch and I’ve felt good doing that. But when I got on the mound I didn’t feel right doing that, so I went with a windup. I felt good.

“I felt I had more in the tank even when John [Farrell] came out and got me. But we had a limit on pitches. I did what they told me to do. I got a start. I would like not to be on a pitch count, but the fact I hadn’t thrown extended pitches, that’s just the team looking out in the best interests of their guys.”


At times you see the old Buchholz. You see the pitching talent that once made him one of the rising stars of the league. Everyone thought he’d keep winning 17-18 games a year. Everyone figured he’d become one of the most dependable guys in the game.

But the injury bug has never stopped plaguing him — well, except for this season, his worst. Buchholz has been awful as a starter, but the good news is he’s injury-free.

Give him credit, however, for going to the bullpen and making the best of it. He could have gone hemming and hawing, but while he didn’t like the move or the times he was passed up for a spot start or two, he took the high road.

At first, the Red Sox were using him in low-leverage situations, but as he became more adaptable to the bullpen, he was used in higher-leverage situations. Nobody ever really has an answer for why guys like Buchholz lose their way; how they lose the very skills that got them this far, that got them earning $13 million a year.

With so many pitchers being groomed as one-inning relievers from the time they’re pitching in college, teams are taking starters and converting them to the bullpen in the hope they can be multi-inning performers.

Saturday’s game also was another opportunity for Buchholz to silence all the doubters. It was another opportunity to prove that he can still be a viable starting pitcher.


He has another option remaining at $13.5 million for 2017. It seems like a ton of money for a glorified fifth starter/reliever, and if you view it that way, there’s no way the Red Sox pick up the option.

On the other hand, if you believe that this season was an aberration and that he’ll be back to being a top-echelon starter next season, you cross your fingers and bite the bullet and pick it up. The team has had a few chances to deal him, but every team is looking to get him at a bargain price.

Teams that were trying to deal for Buchholz — the Royals and Marlins, for two — thought the Red Sox were being unrealistic in what they wanted in return. So the Red Sox held on to him as emergency, for times like these. They held on in case one of their starters went down for the long term. Buchholz would give them an experienced, once-very-good starter to fall back on.

Realistically, it’s all they could do. The other options for an emergency starter simply weren’t that attractive.

Pawtucket’s Henry Owens was pitching better, but he has been tried at the major league level and wasn’t successful. Brian Johnson was back from his anxiety hiatus, but the Sox simply didn’t think he was ready for the majors at this point. Roenis Elias, who is with the team now, had his chance and floundered. Sean O’Sullivan is what he is. William Cuevas, eh. Joe Kelly was converted to relief as well.


And so it fell to Buchholz. Keep him in the bullpen, let him pitch multiple innings when needed, and keep him sharp, just in case.

Buchholz held up his end Saturday night. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an improvement.

Maybe he’s strumming a new song.

Box score: Red Sox 6, Diamondbacks 3

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.