With 89 wins, the Boston Red Sox’ playoff tickets are being printed. No, the Red Sox haven’t clinched a playoff spot, yet (their magic number is eight), but their ace has returned. Clay Buchholz is back, and the Red Sox have never been deeper.
Tuesday night was Buchholz’s first start since June 8, more than a three month absence. When Buchholz went down with his neck injury in early June, the Red Sox were in first place with a record of 38-25. They held a 1.5-game lead over the second place New York Yankees.
Things have changed a bit since Buchholz – who was having one of the best Red Sox pitching seasons in recent memory – went down. The Red Sox remain in first place, but with a 10.5/8.5-game lead over the second place Tampa Bay Rays. They are now 30 games over .500, as opposed to the 13 games on June 8. The biggest difference is the attitude, though. In early June, being in first place was disconcerting. This was a self-proclaimed “bridge year team,” so being in first place wasn’t exactly an expectation. Now, three months later, the Red Sox are bona fide contenders, currently with a grip on the best record in the league. The team has chemistry and character, even if it’s centered around having mountain man beards and an uncanny inability to button one’s jersey.
Sporting a greasy mane and stringy beard, Clay Buchholz has been with the Red Sox throughout the season. He may not have been pitching, but he surely didn’t miss the grooming memo. Additionally, after Tuesday’s pitching performance, Buchholz also seems to have forgotten he was injured.
In a pitch count-limited start, Buchholz was able to record six strikeouts and just three hits in five shutout innings. Buchholz also walked one batter in his 74-pitch performance.
“A healthy Clay Buchholz is going to be a great addition,” Manager John Farrell said in the post-game press conference. “He showed it tonight.”
With the recent struggles of both Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster, the boost of Buchholz return will definitely be felt across the rotation. A Red Sox rotation that included Jon Lester, Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz is exactly what Ben Cherington & Co. had in mind when they made the win-now trade deadline deal that brought Peavy to Boston. That trio presents a formidable group of starters to bring into the playoffs, and automatically vaults the Red Sox chances of a World Series title.
Buchholz’s first start off the DL was impressive, and it shines light on the great position the Red Sox are currently in. However, it came against a reeling Rays squad that had won just four of their last 17. Although the Red Sox don’t have an easy remaining schedule (nine of the Red Sox remaining 14 games are against teams currently fighting for wild card spots) and Buchholz is in a tough spot for just his second start in three months (Sunday Night Baseball against the New York Yankees), Buchholz return is a welcomed sight.
Aside from the added rest Buchholz’s return will afford the rest of the starting rotation, he returns with an impressive years’ resume. In 13 starts, Buchholz has gone 10-0 with an ERA of 1.61 and a WHIP of 1.01. Other than his pitch-limited start on Tuesday, Buchholz has failed to record a quality start in just one other game – a game in which Buchholz’s night ended prematurely due to rain. The troubling mark on Buchholz’s season stats is that, although he striking out batters at higher rate than he ever has (8.77 per 9 IP), he is also walking batters at a considerably higher rate, too (his K/BB is 2.9). But, Buchholz has found a way around his walks, hardly ever allowing a run (his ERA led the league when he was eligible earlier this season).
Although any prediction about Buchholz’s future performances this season would be dangerous, it is difficult to imagine a way Buchholz’s return could be bad for the Red Sox. Buchholz has been the team’s best starter, and their success index is only improved with him in the rotation.