A troubling step back for Buchholz

BOSTON -- This was supposed to be the start. The one where Clay Buchholz put it together. The one where he took a step toward rediscovering some of the dominance he displayed early in 2013.

Buchholz had made slight strides in his first three starts, recovering from a painful opening against Milwaukee to limit the Yankees to two earned runs in six innings on April 10 before doing the same to the White Sox on Wednesday.

His pitch counts had risen from 72 to 94 to 109. The hit totals dropped from 13 to seven to six. Marathon Monday was sunny and a perfect 59 degrees at first pitch. There was a Patriots’ Day buzz unlike any this park has seen. It was all there for the taking.

Yet, just two minutes after noon, Buchholz was done, a full afternoon and evening ahead of him to contemplate another step in the wrong direction.

“I threw some good pitches today. Threw some bad ones,” Buchholz said after giving up six runs on seven hits in 2 1/3 innings of a 7-6 loss to Baltimore on Monday. “Some good ones got hit. All the bad ones got hit.”

It was Buchholz’s shortest start since his 2012 finale and his shortest start ever at Fenway Park.

He was not the only one surprised by the results.

“It was encouraging the last couple of starts that he was coming off of. Felt like there was every reason to think that there would be as good a stuff or, [given] the trend he was showing, to have a pickup from the last couple,” manager John Farrell said. “But the lack of finish to his stuff was the difference.”

In addition to the damage the outing does to Buchholz’s ERA and, more importantly, to the team’s win-loss record, the 55-pitch effort prevents him from taking that next step in establishing arm strength. He could feel the strength coming on in his last two outings, but realizes he still has some work to do in that department.

“Not quite there. It feels like it’s getting better,” said Buchholz, who now sits at 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA. “Later in the last two games I felt if I wanted to reach back, 92-93 (mph) was there, but that usually comes pretty easy. Struggling with that a little bit now. It’ll come together. Still got a lot of time left in this first half to put it all together and go from there.”

Buchholz and Farrell both stressed that the right-hander is fine physically, despite the difficult-to-obtain arm strength and the reduced velocity in the early-going. Pitchers often take a handful of starts to achieve optimum arm strength, so it is nothing new. However, the inability to fight his way through the issues on Monday was notable. As Farrell said, the big strikeout in a big spot was “elusive.”

Buchholz, who slept at the park Sunday night to adjust for the quick turnaround before the 11:05 a.m. start, walked one in the first inning but needed just eight pitches -- all strikes -- to cruise through the second. The next frame began with five straight singles for a 3-0 Baltimore lead, followed by an RBI groundout, an RBI double, and then a sixth single to drive in a sixth run and chase the struggling righty. The Red Sox bullpen did a wonderful job to limit the Orioles from that point on, but the damage was done.

Catcher David Ross put some of the blame on himself.

“I would’ve liked to have thrown a couple more fastballs, establish the fastball more than we did,” said Ross, whose solo home run in the seventh was part of the comeback rally that fell short for Boston. “That was our plan, we talked about that. They’re a good fastball-hitting team and that was kind of one of our approaches, to mix a lot of pitches early on. It didn’t work out, some of that falls on me.”

Ross felt that showing the entire arsenal the first time through the order enabled the Orioles to be ready for anything from Buchholz the second time around.

If Burke Badenhop had not induced a double play to end the third inning in relief of Buchholz, the final line for the Red Sox starter might have been a bit more unsightly. Badenhop threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings and the bullpen as a whole allowed just one run in 6 2/3 frames.

“He saved us, actually,” Farrell said of Badenhop. “The number of groundball double plays that he got. The 3 2/3 that he picked us up with. One run allowed [by the bullpen]. Three hits allowed. You’re asking the bullpen to go 6 2/3 and they give up one run, they’ve had a very good day.”

But if you’re asking the bullpen to go 6 2/3, that means something went wrong from the start. And that has happened in two of Buchholz’s four games, with Monday’s lackluster effort damaging the positive trajectory on which he appeared to be.

“Not good,” Buchholz said when asked to assess his season so far. “This game’s always based on results, so it’s hard to tell anybody that I felt good today because I really didn’t.”

Buchholz’s 2013 season ended with a bit of a whimper, as he returned from a long layoff to make four starts to end the regular season before one condensed outing in the postseason. However, he wasn’t bad. In fact, just the opposite. He went 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA in September and then gutted his way through four scoreless innings in Game 4 of the World Series.

Still, there was some uncertainty as to how he would bounce back from the neck issue that bogged him down in 2013. Nearly a month into 2014, that uncertainty remains.