Commentary

Defining moment for Clay Buchholz

Updated: October 27, 2013, 5:02 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

ST. LOUIS -- The Boston Red Sox don't have to look far for a road map on how you survive a chaotic, maddening, sleep-depriving, soul-stomping umpiring decision upon which a World Series may turn.

They need only look to one of their own: Luis Tiant. After another World Series Game 3, in 1975, his team was seething after plate umpire Larry Barnett did not call interference on Ed Armbrister of the Cincinnati Reds when he lingered in front of the plate after bunting, Sox catcher Carlton Fisk colliding with him as he threw to second, causing the throw to go awry. That set up the winning run in a 6-5, 10-inning loss which left the Sox in the same predicament they face here Sunday night: Down two games to one, on the road, all the momentum in favor of the home team.

How angry were the Sox after that game? "If it was me out there,'' pitcher Bill Lee raged, "I would have bit [Barnett's] ear off. I'd have Van Goghed him.''

That was the backdrop when Tiant took the mound for Game 4, working on three days' rest after shutting out the Reds 6-0, in a virtuoso performance before Fenway Park's adoring masses chanting "Looie, Looie" throughout the afternoon. But this was in a hostile environment, against a heavily favored Reds team loaded with future Hall of Famers -- Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez -- and the one-of-a-kind Pete Rose.

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And Tiant responded with the defining game of his career: Knocked around for two runs in the first inning, his breaking ball betraying him on an unfamiliar mound, wriggling out of one jam after another, Tiant could not be broken. He threw a staggering 163 pitches, gave up nine hits and walked four, but went the distance in a 5-4 Red Sox victory that tied the Series at two games apiece.

"In the game the Red Sox could not lose,'' the legendary Peter Gammons wrote that night, "El Tiante would not lose. Struggling like Rocky Marciano through Jersey Joe Walcott, John Garfield in 'Body and Soul,' the man who has been the spine of a pitching staff since his reincarnation four years ago carried the Red Sox back into the Series.''

Said catcher Fisk: "It was a tough situation to walk out of alive.''

But they did.

Which takes us to Sunday night in Busch Stadium, the Red Sox still reeling from a 5-4 loss in the bottom of the ninth in which a double play that surely would have been remembered as one of the greatest game-saving plays in Series history was nullified by an obstruction call made by third-base umpire Jim Joyce and reinforced by plate umpire Dana DeMuth. In a Sox clubhouse roiled by confusion and anger, no one threatened the umpires with bodily harm, like Lee. But passions ran high.

"I'm beat,'' Game 3 starter Jake Peavy said. "I'm out of words. I don't know what to say. I think it's a crying shame a call like that is going to decide a World Series game. It's a joke. Two teams are pouring their hearts out on the field and that's the call you make.''

And now, into the vortex, comes Clay Buchholz, a pitcher of unquestioned gifts when he is right, a fragile sculpture of glass when he is not. This is one of those times, Buchholz's right shoulder apparently crumbling under the strain of pitching through ailments undefined except by vague terms such as fatigue and tightness, his very availability questioned for the days leading up to his start in Game 4.

But unfair as it may be, given the obvious limitations of his physical condition, because of the setting this looms as a defining moment for the 29-year-old native of Nederland, Texas, as surely as that long-ago Game 4 did for the 34-year-old native of Havana, Cuba, Tiant.

The question for Buchholz is not whether he can go the distance like Tiant did. No one in his wildest dreams expects that. For Buchholz, it is not how close he will come to the finish line, but how far he lasts after the starting gun.

In each of his two starts in the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, Buchholz was done in the sixth inning. He gave up five earned runs in 5 2/3 innings in Game 2, and lasted just two batters into the sixth in Game 6, when he was dismissed after just 85 pitches and a yield of two runs. The quality of his pitches was in obvious decline by the time he was lifted; his fastball was at 88 mph, the breaking pitches were not thrown with the same extension, the differential between his fastball and changeup was noticeably shrinking.

[+] EnlargeClay Buchholz
Al Bello/Getty ImagesClay Buchholz gave up two runs in five innings in his last start, Game 6 of the ALCS.

And then, last week, came the news that Buchholz had been bumped back to the fourth slot in the Sox's rotation for the Series, and even then, manager John Farrell was questioned daily on whether Buchholz would be able to pitch at all. He only lobbed the ball on the field for a short time Thursday, threw again Friday afternoon in St. Louis with greater intensity, then had another throwing session on Saturday, longer than he normally would have on the day before a start.

"Based on the way he threw yesterday, and as he increased in intensity, he felt good,'' Farrell said. "Everything is on go for tomorrow.''

But when will "go" become "stop"? Buchholz, who faced the media Saturday afternoon, is as uncertain as anyone else. He has been taking anti-inflammatory medication, which has helped, but acknowledged that after last year's scare -- for which he was hospitalized in intensive care and lost three to four pints of blood with an inflammation of his esophagus that may have been caused by the anti-inflammatory medication Toradol -- he is avoiding the stronger stuff.

"I want to be as healthy as I can be,'' he said. "But that was a pretty scary moment for me. And putting your health -- being in the hospital and being as serious as that was, putting that in jeopardy, I think that sort of veered us away."

Interestingly, Cardinals star Carlos Beltran said it was Toradol that enabled him to return to the lineup in Game 2 after bruising his ribs the night before.

If there is a silver lining, it is that the Red Sox won both of Buchholz's abbreviated starts in the ALCS. But if he is knocked out early Sunday, the Sox are dangerously short of pitchers. Felix Doubront and Brandon Workman, both of whom figured to back up Buchholz on Sunday, were both used for multiple innings in Game 3. That leaves Franklin Morales and Ryan Dempster as Farrell's long-relief options Sunday night.

"My one thing that I have is to go and compete,'' Buchholz said. "Go out there for as long as John wants to leave me out there, and give the team a chance to win to the best of my ability. Obviously, given the couple of days that I've been out so far, not 100 percent. But I've said it a couple of times this year, I don't think anybody, especially at this time of the season, is 100 percent.

"It's going to be my first World Series experience being on the field, and I think that just the environment, the crowd, the adrenaline, that's going to help me out, too.''

And, perhaps, the ghost of El Tiante.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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