- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Clay Buchholz will say he wasn’t feeling the pressure of suddenly becoming the so-called ace of the Boston Red Sox pitching staff after fellow pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey were traded last week.
Buchholz, 29, is now the senior member of a young rotation.
In the past few days, Red Sox manager John Farrell has answered questions about whether Buchholz has the ability to become the ace of the staff, both from a physical and mental standpoint. Farrell spoke of Buchholz’s career experiences -- good and bad -- and feels the pitcher can lead a young staff by example.
Buchholz concurs. The veteran right-hander said Friday he’s ready for the opportunity.
The next chapter of his career began Sunday with a start against the New York Yankees, and it didn’t go well.
Buchholz struggled through five innings and allowed seven runs on eight hits, with five walks and five strikeouts, as the Yankees defeated the Red Sox, 8-7. He tossed 114 pitches (61 strikes) in his no-decision. He’s now allowed five-plus runs in eight starts this season, which is tied for third-most in the majors, per ESPN Stats & Information.
During his earlier struggles this season, time and again Buchholz would give the standard “put it behind me and focus on my next start” cliché. Even he now admits that’s getting old.
“I’ve felt like that a lot this year,” he said. “Just go back to work tomorrow, I guess. It’s been a frustrating year for me individually and obviously the organization. It’s definitely not the way we want to go out there and wear the Red Sox uniform and not perform on any given night. A lot of that is on my shoulders, not picking up the weight that I need to pick up during the season.”
It has been a difficult week behind closed doors for the Red Sox. With so many players gone via trade, especially the core of the club’s pitching staff, a few players admitted it has been tough to concentrate.
“Not a distraction, in any kind of way for me,” Buchholz said. “It was the two guys you’ve been leaning on all year to pitch, and Jonny Gomes. It’s a different group of guys, but at the same time, the guys we have are just as capable to do anything that the guys that left were doing, so you’ve just got to find a way to do it.”
Buchholz had no choice but to go about his business. He couldn’t allow outside distractions affect his pitching. He said his mindset was the same as always -- to compete and give his team every opportunity to win.
“Obviously, I didn’t do either of those tonight,” he said. “Offense took care of business tonight and I didn’t.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty frustrating,” Buchholz said with a long pause. “I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s definitely frustrating.”
When asked what went wrong, Buchholz quickly answered, “Everything. [My] command, and didn’t have feel for much of anything. It was the second start in a row where walks were killing me.”
Buchholz has allowed seven runs in back-to-back starts, and at least four runs in four consecutive outings. Prior to this stretch, he allowed only five runs in 22⅔ innings during a span of three starts.
“I know you’re not supposed to look up at the board and look at numbers, but everybody sees it,” Buchholz said. “It’s a constant battle, going out there trying to throw up zeros and when it doesn’t happen it gets more frustrating and that’s part of the game. That’s why the game is hard and you’ve got to find a way to get through it.”
Farrell and Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves are trying to figure it out too.
“The one thing that’s a recurring thing is the unanswered runs,” Farrell said. “You’re hopeful to go out and put up a zero in those following innings. After two quick outs in the fifth inning, you’re thinking that there’s a chance he can get through six innings, even on a night where the pitch count was climbing. After two quick outs, four consecutive baserunners and that lead evaporates once again.
“On a night where we had four innings max out of the bullpen following yesterday’s game and needing Steven Wright to be held back for length if needed, [we were] trying to get Clay through that fifth inning [with the lead] and unfortunately it doesn’t happen.”
After Thursday’s trade deadline was complete, the Red Sox had improved their offense but depleted their pitching. General manager Ben Cherington admitted he would need to address the pitching situation moving forward and into the offseason.
When Buchholz is pitching at his best, he has the ability to be at the top of the rotation. His biggest issue is inconsistency. That has been the case his entire career. It’s a constant battle of physical ability versus the mental aspect of the game, and when those two are aligned, he’s a very dangerous pitcher.
It’s no secret Buchholz has had countless conversations with former big league pitcher Bob Tewksbury, who was the Red Sox’s longtime sports psychology coach, and now is the director of player development for the MLBPA. The two have worked closely together over the years, including this season.
Through all of Buchholz’s ups and downs in his career, he has learned to focus on the process, find a routine that works and stick with it. If everything falls into place, success should follow. In the past, he tried different breathing techniques on the mound. His pregame routine is important. He used to play the guitar or play video games. He’ll walk around the clubhouse throwing a ball into his glove countless times.
On Sunday, he tried to simplify things to no avail.
“I was just trying to throw the ball over the plate,” Buchholz said. “When things are going good, you find a way to make a routine. When things are going bad, sometimes you change things up and you don’t even recognize you’re changing them up. It’s just you’re so into doing one thing, you’re not thinking about anything else, so that probably had something to do with it.”
If he stays healthy, he should start at least 10 more times this season. He's now at a critical point in his career. He needs to figure out what he needs to fix and he needs to pitch with confidence.
He’s no longer the young buck looking up to the veteran pitchers. But he shouldn’t worry about being a leader, either. He just needs to be Clay Buchholz.
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