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March 23. 2013 9:36PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Buchholz is key for Red Sox


Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz throws in the first inning during a March 7 spring training game against the Minnesota Twins at Hammond Stadium. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Red Sox fans were so eager to put a woeful season in the past, and rightfully so, they probably weren't paying much attention this winter when Clay Buchholz was named the club's pitcher of the year for 2012.

It was an award that seemed to distinguish the right-hander only as the best of a bad lot, really. Buchholz finished with a record of 11-8, posting a 4.56 earned run average, and striking out only six batters per nine innings, while opponents managed a .757 on-base plus slugging against him. His numbers were all average, or below-average, so that he was deemed the ace of the staff presents a primary reason explaining why the team finished in the basement of the American League East.

Though look not at the sum, but rather the parts, and you'll also find reasons to think Buchholz could be key to a Red Sox resurgence in 2013.

Remember, at the start of last season he was historically bad. He allowed seven runs over four innings in his first outing, and it didn't get better for more than a month, as he was charged with at least five earned runs in each of his first six starts. He was the first pitcher in major league history to open a year that poorly, and his 33 were the most earned runs allowed by a Sox pitcher over his first six appearances in at least a century.

When Buchholz left the mound after yielding seven hits, four walks and five runs in 3 2/3 innings against the Orioles on May 6, his ERA stood at 9.09 - and there were legitimate questions about whether his next start would be in the big leagues. Or at least when it would come. There was speculation that if Buchholz wasn't actually hurt, the Red Sox might say he was in order to press the reset button and let him try to figure things out with some rehab starts in the minors.

Things didn't get that far. Though things didn't turn around instantly, either. Three starts later, his ERA was still 7.84, and opponents were hitting .330 against him with a .954 OPS.

But then came the correction. And cause for optimism this year.

Beginning with seven quality innings on May 27, Buchholz - who to that point could barely make it through surrendering five runs - allowed that many over his next four outings combined. Included therein was a four-hit shutout of the same Orioles team that had bounced him in the fourth inning just a month earlier, and that stretch proved a springboard.

Over his next 19 starts, Buchholz's ERA was 2.93, while foes hit just .229 with a .644 OPS against him. Eleven times he allowed two earned runs or fewer, eight of which were games in which he was charged with one or no runs. Fifteen times over that stretch he completed at least seven innings.

And what might be most encouraging moving forward is the evidence that he could've been even better. Just as he started to find his groove, he was hospitalized with internal bleeding from esophagitis and spent almost a month on the disabled list. Then there were a few more hiccups in his performance, as he was roughed up for five innings by the Marlins, seven runs by the Angels, and eight runs by the Yankees in a dreadful season finale where he recorded only four outs while allowing three home runs.

Ultimately that disaster of a finish, combined with his dreadful start, left his numbers looking wholly mediocre. Though for the better part of the three months in the middle, Buchholz was indeed the Red Sox' best pitcher - and, in fact, he was one of the best pitchers in the American League. He looked like the guy who just two seasons earlier had posted the AL's second-best ERA (2.33) and carried legitimate Cy Young hopes into September.

He looked like the pitcher the Sox have long expected him to be. And he looked like the pitcher who, at 28, could be the difference between them contending and them merely getting back to mediocre this season.

Ryan Dempster throws enough strikes and eats enough innings to think he'll be serviceable as Boston's No. 3 starter. If healthy, and seemingly so, John Lackey and Felix Doubront are capable in the Nos. 4 and 5 roles. And based on his career record and reunion with now-manager John Farrell, it's reasonable to think Jon Lester will bounce back and regain his status as the ace after what so far seems a brutal aberration.

But it's tough to contend with one top-tier stud followed by serviceable arms. Good teams have at least two good starters, so if Buchholz can fit that bill there's a decent chance the Sox could legitimately reenter the mix in the up-for-the-taking AL East - and at this point in his career, good should be a minimum expectation for Buchholz.

He's been that in the past, he was that for the majority of last season, and he's been that this spring. Entering Saturday's start against the Pirates and North Conway's Jeff Locke, he had allowed just a single run, and more importantly a hamstring strain sustained early in camp has proven no issue.

On Saturday, Buchholz threw 88 pitches over 5 1/3 innings, allowing just one run as Pittsburgh beat the Red Sox, 5-3.

Pirates' starter Jeff Locke of Conway, N.H., allowed three runs in four innings and retired the last six batters he faced.

Buchholz's results are encouraging in part because last year he struggled his way to a 5.23 ERA over spring training - and it's not a reach to say that slump bled into the regular season, or that it was a precursor to his pitiful start. A solid March this year doesn't necessarily mean his April will be any better, but the longer it lasts the clearer it becomes that he figured something out last season.

And the more likely it is that if he wins that same award this season, it'll be with a whole different meaning.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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