Commentary

In Game 3, Sox need Buchholz's best

After starting season in the minors, he's on the spot when it matters most

Updated: October 11, 2009, 7:49 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- There were times this season when Clay Buchholz had to wonder if the Red Sox truly needed him.

Nearing midseason, Boston's rotation was overflowing with talent, including a pair of certified aces in Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, not to mention 42-year-old knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who would earn a spot on his first All-Star team. The Red Sox were pondering how they would even make room for a surefire Hall of Famer in John Smoltz.

Surely there wouldn't be a spot for a 25-year-old minor leaguer who couldn't stay on the big league roster when given the chance a year before, even if he was tearing it up in the minors.

So Buchholz wondered out loud what his future held. He felt like he had pitched well enough in Triple-A to earn a spot in the big leagues, and even pondered whether that opportunity would have to come with a different team.

Dobbs I know the nerves are going to be there in the first and second inning. I think after the first pitch and first couple of batters I'll try to take it back to where I was in the middle of the season. Just rely on my fastball to get ahead and go from there. Try to mix pitches and not let them sit on any one pitch. I think that's just the name of pitching.

-- Red Sox Game 3 starter Clay Buchholz

"Whenever [the Red Sox] come to a problem, they seem like they find a way to fix it without me being in the picture," Buchholz told a Boston TV station in mid-June as his record stood at 4-0 with an ERA of 1.74 in 11 starts at Triple-A Pawtucket.

Four months later, the Red Sox have a big problem and they desperately need Clay Buchholz to bail them out.

Facing elimination as the Angels invade Fenway Park for Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Sunday at noon, Boston hands the ball to Buchholz hoping he can bridge the gap back to the aces that failed to produce a win in either of the first two games of the series.

This is the chance Buchholz craved, but even he couldn't have envisioned how this scenario would come to be.

"I thought I had a chance to make the team [out of spring training this year] and they went in a different direction," he recalled Saturday. "It was a little hard at first. Overall, I knew what I had to do to be ready for when they called me. That was my No. 1 priority, to be ready for the time they said, 'Hey, we need you to come up and do this.' That's what I prepared for all year."

To be sure, the Red Sox always wanted Buchholz. After bursting onto the big league scene with a no-hitter in September of 2007's championship season, Buchholz seemed destined to be a top-of-the-rotation guy.

But his 2008 season was abysmal. Buchholz posted a 2-9 mark with a 6.75 ERA in 15 starts before being sent down. He performed well in spring training but wasn't on the roster that headed north, left to toil in minor league obscurity again.

Yet the Sox appeared reluctant to trade him, even when certified big league talent was in the discussion.

Then Boston's rotation fell apart. Daisuke Matsuzaka never did get on track. Wakefield labored through injuries and Smoltz's addition was an unmitigated disaster. Buchholz finally got called up for a spot start July 17 against Toronto, picking up a win after giving up one run on four hits over 5 2/3 innings. Despite some struggles (his record stood at 1-3 with a 4.45 ERA in mid-August), Buchholz showed promising signs and cemented his spot in the depleted rotation. And frankly, the Sox didn't have many other options.

Then Buchholz caught fire.

By pitching the Sox to victory over the Royals on Sept. 24 -- a start in which Buchholz scattered five hits and walked no one over 6 2/3 innings and 109 pitches -- he finished the month 4-0 with a 1.38 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. Overall, the Red Sox had won each of his previous eight starts. "The last, I'd say, 10 starts -- which is roughly a third of the season, maybe -- he was one of the better pitchers in the league," said manager Terry Francona. "Which came at a time we were getting a little bit banged up, so it certainly made our glass look a lot more full.

"We're talking about a younger pitcher that's come through our organization, and now he's going out there being somebody that we want to pitch in playoff-type games. We went through the whole thing last year where it didn't work, and he had to go back to Triple-A. Now, having him pitch for us in this type of atmosphere, he's earned it."

Despite the accolades, there may be reason for concern heading into Sunday's game. Over his final two starts of the season -- which admittedly had little or no bearing on Boston's postseason fate -- Buchholz was tagged for 13 earned runs on 13 hits (including six home runs) in eight innings of work. On Sunday, there is no margin for error.

Buchholz downplayed those concerns Saturday.

"It's been a little work on mechanical issues that maybe I overlooked in the past two starts," he said. "And trying not to think too much. There was a lot of shaking off going on in the last outing with me and [catcher Victor Martinez]. We're on the same page a lot. I have to use his insight a little bit better to my advantage. Because that guy, he knows what he needs to do back there to help the pitchers succeed. I'm going to talk to him tomorrow and try to get things straightened out."

But the biggest question is how Buchholz will handle a do-or-die start, by far the biggest game of his career, especially considering he hasn't pitched in an elimination game since college.

"There's pressure there," Buchholz admitted. "It's more nervousness than anything. I'm sort of getting a little antsy now. This is a do-or-die night. You have to win to go on. We have tomorrow to look forward to. And then, if it goes well tomorrow, the next day, and you go from there.

"As far as the pressure goes, it's going to come. I think Game 1 was pressure and [Game 2] was a pressure situation, it's no different than any other game these guys have pitched."

That sentiment was echoed by Francona, who didn't try to sugarcoat the importance of the game, but also noted that Buchholz must go about his normal business.

"I feel like there's no use downplaying tomorrow's start," Francona said. "But [pitchers] get so revved up every five days. Even in games where maybe things don't seem like the season is on the line, the starters get pretty revved up for their starts. So hopefully he doesn't get too revved up. That's why we get such a routine, because you don't want games of this magnitude to alter your approach."

Buchholz said the key to his success would be locating his two-seam fastball, while trying to get ahead of hitters and mixing his arsenal of breaking pitches from there. Dustin Pedroia said Buchholz's teammates are confident he's up to the task.

"Clay has great stuff," Pedroia said. "We've all seen him mature throughout the year. So hopefully he can go out there and be under control and locate his fastball and then throw his curveball and changeup, because those two pitches are dominant. So if he's out there locating his fastball, he's going to be just fine."

Of course, the offense needs to do its part, too.

"[Run support is] important for anybody," Pedroia said. "That's the biggest thing we didn't do in the first two games. We didn't really do anything, offensively. So I think if we come out and score a couple of runs for him early, maybe he'll relax and settle in."

And in the grand scheme of things, maybe Buchholz can finally settle in in Boston.

"Nothing of this magnitude I've ever been able to be a part of," Buchholz said. "I know the nerves are going to be there in the first and second inning. I think after the first pitch and first couple of batters I'll try to take it back to where I was in the middle of the season. Just rely on my fastball to get ahead and go from there. Try to mix pitches and not let them sit on any one pitch. I think that's just the name of pitching."

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

EDITORS' PICKS