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May 10. 2014 9:07PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Buchholz off track


Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz is removed from Friday's game against the Texas Rangers in the fifth inning by manager John Farrell at Global Life Park in Arlington. (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

If  Red Sox fans had been presented a scenario prior to the start of the season in which Clay Buchholz had thrown just 36 1/3 innings through Mother's Day, most would've likely assumed the right-hander who has never finished a full season without injury was hurting again.

They wouldn't have figured he had taken the ball each of his first seven turns through the Red Sox rotation, because that's an average of barely five innings per start from a hurler whose average had lasted into the seventh inning since his breakout season of 2010, and who was one of the best in the American League every time he took the ball in 2013.

Though they also wouldn't have figured that this year Buchholz would find him at the opposite end of the spectrum. That entering Saturday's action Buchholz would have the worst earned run average (6.44) of anyone in the major leagues who has pitched enough innings to qualify - and that distinction was well deserved, because among the 108 pitchers he was the easiest to hit. That opponents were hitting .329 against him, and thus he was allowing more baserunners, 1.73 per inning, than anybody.

But that's where Buchholz is after Friday's failure in Texas, when he was charged with six runs after yielding 10 hits and two walks. It marked the third time in seven appearances that he has surrendered at least six runs without finishing five innings, and signified something of a step back after two encouraging performances has seemed to steady his season.

According to the game score calculations devised by statistician Bill James, Buchholz had been the author of Boston's three worst starts through 35 games. And of the 10 times the Sox staff has given up at least six earned runs in a game, four of them have been in his starts.

Jon Lester already had a burden to bear as the ace, but Buchholz's struggles put on John Lackey and Jake Peavy to deliver every fifth day because now suddenly it's not just Felix Doubront whose performance falls somewhere between unpredictable and subpar, so as long as that lasts it adds weight to any potential clunkers from the others.

But whereas there's little evidence to suggest Doubront can find the missing consistency, with Buchholz there's at least reason to think this is recoverable.

For that silver living, look back to 2012. It was a miserable year for the team, and a miserable start for the right-hander, who allowed at least five earned runs in each of his first six starts, and was sporting an ERA of 7.84 after nine outings. But Buchholz figured it out in late May, and posted a 2.93 ERA over his next 19 starts.

In recent outings Buchholz has rediscovered the velocity he pitched with a couple of years ago, which is a good sign given what that says about his arm strength. And although the number of swings and misses he's generating is unimpressive so far, there's reason to think that'll come, too.

Friday night, Buchholz totaled eight swinging strikes, and so he hasn't reached double digits since posting 10 in his season debut. Last year he had at least that many in nine of his 16 starts - but of the seven he didn't, five came before May 12. The other two came in a rain-shortened five-inning appearance and in the first game after his three-month stint on the disabled list.

That suggests he got less hittable as the season went on - and the Sox hope the same proves true this year, as right now Buchholz is the most hittable pitcher in the game. As he approaches his 30th birthday, that wasn't supposed to be the case for a guy who reached the big leagues three days after turning 23, threw a no-hitter two weeks later, and convinced the team to lock him up until he's 32.

Nobody would've figured he'd be here, the worst of baseball's worst. But nobody should expect him to stay there, either.

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Yu Darvish's dominance Friday night was more about his ability to mix his electric stuff with a well-located fastball than it was about the Sox, but the performance did further a troubling trend for the Boston offense so far this season. After failing to put any of their first 20 batters on base, and managing only one hit in 8 2/3 shutout innings against Darvish, the Red Sox fell to 9-14 this season when opposed by right-handed starting pitchers - the third-worst record in the American League, and the seventh-worst in the majors.

Boston went into Saturday night's game against left-hander Martin Perez with an 8-4 mark against southpaws, which was something of a saving grace, but it's been as much of a struggle as the record suggests against righty starters, against whom the Sox are hitting just .232. That ranks 13th of the 15 AL clubs, as does a .669 on-base plus slugging. In terms of slugging alone they're actually 14th, at .354.

Last year the Red Sox led the AL in OPS (.803) and slugging (.450) against right-handed starters, and were second in the league with a .279 average. As a result, they finished with an AL-best record of 65-43 against that brand of competition and, given the frequency with which clubs face pitching from that side, each of the nine best big-league teams by that measure made the playoffs. In fact, no team has made the postseason with a losing record against righty starters since the Dodgers did in 2008.

So it's important that the Sox start to pick up the performance there. David Ortiz is hitting just .241 against righty starters, despite a career average of .289. A.J. Pierzynski, Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr., all lefties, are respectively hitting .224, .210 and .164 in that split. Will Middlebrooks is batting just .114.

Against guys like Darvish, it's excusable. But if the Red Sox are going to get rolling, those numbers need to be better.

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Stat of the week: Entering Saturday, the Red Sox had the third-best on-base percentage in the American League, at .335 - yet had scored the AL's third-fewest runs per game, at 4.03.

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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