Closing Time: Concerns mount about Clay Buchholz as Red Sox comeback effort against Orioles comes up short

April 21, 2014 - 10:27 am

Is Clay Buchholz injured or just struggling? And which would be worse? Buchholz looked very little like the pitcher who customarily dominated when healthy enough to pitch last year. After two effiicient innings, his outing unraveled in the third, when he permitted six runs on eight hits. A year ago, he didn't allow more than four runs in any of his 16 starts. Thus far this year, he's permitted six runs in a pair of his four starts. Statistically, Buchholz's results have been atrocious. He is 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA. Opponents are hammering him for a line of .375/.402/.568. Yet it's not just a matter of his results being bad. His stuff has also simply been different than in past years. His fastball velocity is down, as he came into the game averaging about 91 mph on his fastballs (four- and two-seam), about 2 mph off of where he threw it over the prior four seasons. His swings and misses on his four- and two-seam fastballs are also down by about half, from about one in every 12 pitches to one in every 25. (He didn't have a single swing and miss on a fastball on Monday.) With the diminished power and greater vulnerability to his fastball has come a greater reluctance to use it -- whereas he threw a fastball (either four- or two-seamer) almost every other pitch last year (a combined 49.4 percent of the time), this year, he's using those primary offerings just over a third of the time (a combined 34.8 percent). The Red Sox have not suggested that Buchholz is dealing with any kind of injury. It's possible that he's healthy and simply has yet to cut loose with his stuff -- not unlike how, at the start of a 2012 season when he was returning from a back injury, he seemed cautious throughout April, with diminished results following, before he turned his year around in mid-May and dominated for most of the remaining 4 1/2 months of the year. That history can give the Red Sox hope. Unless Buchholz is dealing with an injury, then given what they've seen so far in 2014 -- particularly on Monday morning, when he got just three swings and misses among his 55 pitches, and put the Sox in a hole so deep that they couldn't escape in a 7-6 loss to the Orioles -- those are the sorts of silver linings to which the Sox must cling with a pitcher who is critical to what they hope to accomplish. WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX -- The start was tied for the third shortest (non-injury edition) of Buchholz's career. -- The Sox suffered from some sloppy execution at times, most notably on a potential double play ball in the top of the eighth. Dustin Pedroia couldn't get the ball out of his glove cleanly, with his double clutch resulting in disruption to the timing of Xander Bogaerts' relay, which went wide of first base and permitted the hitter (Steve Clevenger) to arrive safely at first. That resulted in a run when Clevenger advanced to second on a fly ball and then scored on a single to shallow center on which Jackie Bradley Jr. threw wildly towards home, nowhere near either the plate or a cutoff man. A good throw likely would have had Clevenger; if Bradley had found the cutoff man, the Sox at least would have had a chance. Instead, the Orioles received a key measure of breathing room in the late innings. -- Bogaerts had an ill-timed baserunning blunder, getting stuck in no man's land between second and third after pinch-hitter Jonathan Herrera struck out with runners on first and second. He appeared to give up on the play briefly when catcher Steve Clevenger fired through to second base, and ultimately was run down easily by the second baseman for a strikeout-caught stealing double play. -- Jonny Gomes went 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts. WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX -- Burke Badenhop led a spectacular effort by the Red Sox bullpen. Badenhop entered with one out and one on in the top of the third and promptly elicited an inning-ending double play. That proved the first of three double plays he induced from the Orioles in his 3 2/3 innings of shutout work. Badenhop became the 25th reliever since 2000 to elicit three twin-killings in a single outing, with the righty permitting just one hit (a single) and walking two while striking out one and getting nine groundball outs. His best performance as a Red Sox was followed by strong relief from Craig Breslow (2 innings in which he was charged with a run that wouldn't have scored but for a botched double play ball) and a scoreless innings from Andrew Miller, giving the Sox a chance to mount a comeback bid against Baltimore. -- Dustin Pedroia had a two-out RBI double in the fifth, the Sox' first two-out extra-base hit with a runner in scoring position since Jackie Bradley Jr. had one in the 14th inning in Chicago last week, and their first against a pitcher (as opposed to a position player) since David Ortiz had a two-out double against Rangers closer Joakim Soria on April 8. -- Mike Napoli, who stayed overnight at Fenway Park to receive treatment on a left knee that Darren O'Day drilled with a pitch on Sunday night, crushed a homer to left-center against O'Day in the bottom of the eighth. David Ross also clubbed his first homer of the year.