BOSTON — Three months ago, there was virtually no situation that would have compelled Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell to give the ball to embattled right-hander Clay Buchholz.
Now? Let’s just say neither rain nor hail nor the postponement of a playoff game can keep Buchholz from making his appointed start with the Red Sox’s season on the line.
Sunday’s rainout of Game 3 of the division series against the Cleveland Indians presented an opportunity for Farrell to skip Buchholz’s turn in the rotation and bring Cy Young Award candidate Rick Porcello back on three days’ rest after he threw only 72 pitches in a Game 1 loss Thursday at Progressive Field.
But apparently the Red Sox have a new motto when it comes to their starting rotation: “In Clay we trust.”
“Clay will pitch tomorrow,” Farrell said Sunday from soggy Fenway Park. “What we do if we get to a Game 4, we’ll have further discussion on that.”
It really is Buchholz or bust for the Red Sox, who have been outplayed in every area through the first two games of the best-of-five series. The irony isn’t lost on Boston’s longest-tenured pitcher.
“There’s been a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts,’ but I still found a way to stick around,” Buchholz said. “Everybody goes through struggles at some point in the year. Mine were a little more extreme than others.”
Indeed, Buchholz’s struggles were so extreme and his spot on the roster so tenuous that anyone who suggested in July that he would be in this position in October would have been considered crazy. The fact that Dustin Pedroia claims to have told Buchholz all along that he would start the Red Sox’s most important game of the year ought to compel the veteran second baseman to buy a Powerball ticket.
“Pee-Wee has been here longer than I have,” Buchholz said of Pedroia. “You just need to let somebody know that it might not be working out right now, but it’s going to work out in the end. I think that’s where he was going with that. I thought in my mind I would be on the mound in a deciding game as well. It was a little far-fetched at one point this year, but I’m still here.”
To recap: Buchholz began the season as the Sox’s No. 2 starter behind ace lefty David Price. He had a 6.35 ERA through 10 starts, and after he gave up three homers to the Colorado Rockies on May 26 at Fenway Park, he got banished to the bullpen.
Farrell is known for being fiercely protective of his players, especially veterans. But he stated publicly that he wasn’t comfortable using Buchholz in anything other than a mop-up role. It was no wonder then that as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approached, Buchholz thought he was a goner.
But a funny thing happened on Buchholz’s way out of town. On Aug. 5, knuckleballer Steven Wright jammed his right shoulder while diving back to second base, a freak accident that sidelined him for most of the balance of the season. Buchholz moved back into the rotation and went 4-0 with a 2.98 ERA in eight starts down the stretch.
“We always felt he was a good pitcher,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “He didn’t get a real good start to his year, but I’ve seen guys have tough times, but you still know they have ability. He always had stuff. We always thought that at some point the depth you have on the pitching staff was going to be important. He had the big-league ability to do it. Fortunately, we kept him, and he’s pitched well for us.”
The reason for the turnaround? Take your pick. With help from assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister, Buchholz realized his release point had dropped considerably since the end of the 2013 season and worked to raise it back up. Buchholz also simplified his mechanics by pitching exclusively from the stretch.
It also helped that Buchholz’s return to the rotation coincided with the ascension of Sandy Leon to the No. 1 catcher position. Buchholz isn’t always the easiest pitcher to work with because he throws so many different pitches and prefers to dictate his own game, but over the past two seasons, he has developed chemistry with Leon.
“When you communicate with a pitcher really well, you know how they’ll pitch,” said Leon, with whom Buchholz has posted a 3.01 ERA in 32 career starts. “I’ll be asking him how he likes to work, and the communication is good overall. I know the way he pitches. He’s been mixing his pitches early in the count, early in the game, executing his pitches, getting ahead with offspeed pitches and locating his fastballs away and inside to whoever is hitting. He’s done a really good job.”
So much so that the Red Sox are trusting Buchholz to extend the season, even after the potential gift of a rain out gave them other options.