BOSTON -- The general consensus was that if the Red Sox bring up Aaron Cook on Tuesday before he has a chance to opt out of his deal and place him into the bullpen, it would cement Daniel Bard’s hold on a rotation spot. Cook would provide relief, Bard would remain a starter and the sun would rise the next day.
There was a wild card. What if Clay Buchholz continued to struggle to the point where he, not Bard, was the one who needed to be moved somewhere, likely down the road to Pawtucket to get straightened out. After all, Bard to the bullpen was more of a fix for the once-struggling relief corps. He has performed just fine as a starter.
On the other hand, Buchholz still may have something to prove. As inconceivable as it would have sounded before the season, a Cook-for-Buchholz maneuver has been discussed in and around Fenway Park.
When you lower your ERA from 8.87 to 8.69, as Buchholz did in Monday’s 11-6 win over the Oakland Athletics, it would seem as if your soft grip on a starting role remained just that. Then again, Buchholz and those who are tasked with helping him return to form felt that this was a step in the right direction.
“I felt like it was my most positive outing aside from the line,” said Buchholz, who gave up six runs on seven hits with five walks and five strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings against a team that entered the night ranked dead last in the American League in most significant offensive categories.
Buchholz allowed just one run on four hits through the first six innings. He had thrown only 72 pitches to that point. But two singles, two walks and a three-run homer by ex-teammate Josh Reddick led to a five-run seventh. When manager Bobby Valentine emerged from the dugout following the Reddick blast, Buchholz kicked at the mound and shouted in disgust, clearly peeved over the way his night ended.
The man who brought the hook thought the reaction was appropriate, not because Buchholz had a bad start but because he was so close to having a special one.
“He was probably frustrated that he had a complete game or something in his sights and he let it get away,” Valentine said.
Therein lies the danger in assessing Buchholz’s latest outing. The line is not pretty. The overall numbers are very poor, aside from the team-leading three wins. However, six of Monday night's innings were extremely efficient, to the point where Buchholz could legitimately think of a complete game, or at least something close to it. And Buchholz’s final pitch of the night, a curve headed for the dirt that Reddick golfed into the Oakland bullpen, was one he would throw over and over again.
“I went down to block the pitch. Good pitch,” catcher Kelly Shoppach said. “Guy just made a better swing.”
Still, Buchholz has allowed at least five earned runs in each of his five starts, the first Red Sox pitcher to do that at any point in a season since 1940. He has just one more strikeout (16) than he does walks. The home run by Reddick is the seventh Buchholz has allowed in 29 innings.
So where is he? Is Buchholz a scuffling pitcher who could prove to be a detriment to the rotation until he figures some things out? Or is he still the guy who was a legit Cy Young Award candidate through much of the 2010 season and simply needs a little more time?
Buchholz thinks it is the latter, for one specific reason. He said that his changeup, an absolute weapon in that outstanding ’10 season but a mystery early in 2012, is beginning to reemerge. Credit time in the tape room for that development.
“I looked at a lot of video from 2010 because that’s when the changeup was at its best,” he said. “Saw a lot of things in that video. Today was the best changeup I’ve thrown all year. I wasn’t second-guessing anything.”
Chances are that Buchholz showed enough Monday to prevent any second-guessing on the part of the organization. They have a lot invested in the lanky right-hander and one bad month doesn’t undo the past.
At some point Buchholz will have to put it all together. There may be another option waiting in the wings.