ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Like David Price, the aggrieved Tampa Bay Rays pitcher who took out his frustrations via Twitter, Clay Buchholz also has had his differences with TBS commentator Dirk Hayhurst, who has received far more notoriety for his turns as a broadcaster and author (“Bullpen Gospels”) than he ever did as a pitcher.
Back in early May, it was Hayhurst, whose regular broadcast gig is in Toronto, who first made the claim that Buchholz was loading up the baseball before he pitched it, an allegation made with similar conviction by Jack Morris, one of the best pitchers of the 1980s and another part of the Blue Jays' broadcast team.
“Look, I saw Clay Buchholz going to his forearm, where there was not skin-colored something there, taking two fingers, wiping it across, massaging said cream or stickum or slickum or whatever the popular buzzword of today is, and then using it to grip the baseball,” Hayhurst said on SportsNet 590 The Fan in Toronto. “That’s illegal. You can’t do that.”
But unlike Price, Buchholz essentially let it slide, other than to maintain his innocence, while teammate Ryan Dempster hilariously filled his locker with an assortment of lotions, gels and other substances of dubious import, which Dempster said he borrowed from his then-undefeated teammate. There was no name-calling, no tweets and, soon, no controversy.
Buchholz went back to pitching, running his record to 9-0 with a major-league best ERA of 1.71 until he was forced to shut down because of shoulder bursitis a month later. It would take him more than three months -- 94 days -- to recover, but now Buchholz, who is starting Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Rays, will have the chance to experience postseason success for the first time in his career.
And Hayhurst, part of the TBS studio team, will be watching.
Buchholz has pitched just once before in October. He started Game 3 of the ALDS in 2009, and left after five innings with a 5-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels. The Boston Red Sox bullpen gave up five runs in the last two innings, and the Angels won 7-6, completing a three-game sweep. That was the last postseason game the Sox played until winning the first two games against the Rays last Friday and Saturday in Fenway Park.
Buchholz professes to having few memories of the occasion. "It was against the Angels, and we didn’t end up winning, that’s about all I’ve got," he said. "It was definitely good to experience it. It’s a different feeling. But it was a couple of years ago. I was a little bit younger, too.
"I think I’ve matured as a player, knowing what I need to do in certain situations. And I can’t take anything for granted or anybody lightly. They [the Rays] are here for a reason, too. But I’m definitely ready to go, and I definitely think that was a good stepping stone for me."
There is one assumption that all parties involved -- Buchholz, the Red Sox and the Rays -- appear to share: Buchholz, who has made four starts since coming off the DL, winning three of them, is healthy again. Maybe he’s not where he was before he was hurt, but the Rays saw first-hand on Sept. 10 that he can still be effective. That was his first start off the DL, and Buchholz threw five scoreless innings in Tropicana Field, allowing three hits, walking one and striking out six.
Buchholz has been a handful for the Rays throughout his career, with a 2.41 ERA in 16 career starts. He has been even more effective in the Trop: His 2.26 ERA in nine starts there is the best among active pitchers with at least that many starts.
"Buchholz, since he’s come back and even before that, this guy is really, really good," Rays manager Joe Maddon said Sunday. "He’s always pitched well against us in this ballpark. He presents a lot of challenges."
Buchholz went seven innings and threw 113 pitches in his final tuneup Sept. 27 against the Orioles, so there is no doubt that he can pitch deep into the game Monday, manager John Farrell said.
"Physically there are no restrictions," Farrell said. "Since coming off the DL we’ve been able to progress him to a pitch count comfortably north of 100 pitches. I think there’s been inconsistent command with the fastball, but nothing to the point of saying something is causing it. In other words, [no] ailment that’s the root of it.
"He’s pitched free. His feel to his secondary pitches were more advanced than we expected after three months’ downtime."
Pitching free, in a game in which the Sox hope he is money against Alex Cobb, the Boston-born right-hander who grew up in Vero Beach, Fla., and endured his own physical trauma this summer when he was struck in the head by a line drive hit by Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer, sidelining him with concussive symptoms for two months.
In nine starts since his return, Cobb is 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA, striking out 58 and walking 22 in 59 2/3 innings. He also already has faced an elimination game and won, pitching 6 2/3 scoreless innings last Wednesday night in Cleveland in the Rays’ play-in win over the Indians.
"It’s going to be the same mindset," Cobb said. "Win or go home."
For Buchholz, the equation is win and advance, or lose and hope the Sox close out the Rays the next night.
"I’m excited, a little anxious to get it started," he said. "I’m going to just try to do the same thing as I’ve done all year when I’ve been out there: stay in the zone, throw strikes, try to get your hitters in the dugout as quick as possible."