ATLANTA -- Jon Lester made it to the Red Sox in 2006, Clay Buchholz a year later. Lester turned 30 on Jan. 7. Buchholz turns 30 on Aug. 14. They've both thrown no-hitters and won on the game's biggest stages.
Tuesday night, Lester bobbed and weaved his way through six grinding innings against the Atlanta Braves, allowing 11 baserunners but escaping enough times off the ropes to emerge with a 6-3 win when his teammates rallied for four runs in the seventh. Afterward, Lester considered the plight of his struggling teammate and said there's another thing they have in common, too.
"I've been there," Lester said. "I know what he's going through. We've all been there. If you play this game long enough, you're going to get your ass kicked plenty of times."
Lester likened what Buchholz is going through now with what he endured in 2012, when, after four straight seasons with a sub-3.50 ERA and 15 or more wins, the left-hander was a shadow of himself, posting a career-high 4.82 ERA and winning just nine games. Buchholz at the moment has a 7.02 ERA, the worst of any qualifying starter in the majors.
"You ask him, he probably feels this big," Lester said, holding his thumb and index finger a sliver apart. "It's hard. It's every five days, and it's like, 'I'm trying to pick up my teammates. They know I'm struggling, everybody sees it. I'm trying to do better. I'm trying to do better.'"
A year ago at this time, as manager John Farrell noted before the game, Buchholz was pitching like a potential Cy Young Award winner. Now, Farrell said, the Sox have not yet decided whether he'll make his next start.
There has been considerable speculation that Buchholz, who missed three months last summer with what the team called shoulder bursitis, is hurt. Pitchers don't typically endure drop-offs as pronounced as this without something being wrong physically.
"No," Lester said when asked if he believes that about Buchholz. "He would have said something."
A visitor mentioned that John Lackey, who was awful in 2011, never said a word publicly about his shredded elbow until just before it was disclosed he would need Tommy John surgery.
"But everybody here knew," Lester said. "We all knew. I knew where Lack was at. It's easy to see when you walk into the trainer's room and he's doing his stuff.
"We've all been around Clay long enough, if there was something wrong, he'd say something to us. I'm sure it would get back to the trainers at some point."
There's a possibility the Sox will choose to place Buchholz on the 15-day disabled list. Tuesday, Farrell mentioned that Buchholz hyperextended his left knee when he landed awkwardly after a pitch, although when it happened Buchholz waved the manager and trainer back into the dugout and kept on pitching. Farrell also talked about how Buchholz lost seven pounds in Atlanta's heat and humidity; Buchholz said Tuesday he spent much of his day trying to replenish the fluids he had lost.
Those issues alone hardly would seem to be the type that would land him on the DL or skip his turn in the rotation. One or both, however, could serve as a convenient avenue for giving Buchholz a chance to regroup mentally without putting his already battered confidence in harm's way three days from now.
"I think that's up to him," Lester said. "I think that's up to John. I think that's up to Juan [Nieves, the pitching coach]. If skipping a start mentally is good for him, I don't think you can fault that; but if he keeps running out there and that's good for him, then that's good for him."
What is clear, at least to Lester, is that Buchholz has to find a way to narrow his focus into a single beam of light ("How do I win this pitch, then the next one, first this batter, OK, now this one, this inning, and OK, now the next?") rather than dwell on his current litany of failure. That's not so easily accomplished, Lester said, especially when your confidence is hanging by a thread.
"Obviously, he's probably getting a lot of thoughts," Lester said. "I think sometimes as pitchers -- you can talk to any of us -- I think we all fall into the rut of worrying about, 'OK, I've got to have a good one.'
"Like today, I know what happened yesterday [Buchholz walked a career-high eight in three innings]. We all know what happened yesterday. When I walked into this place, I was hell-bent on going nine. Nine-inning shutout. I got to do this, I got to save the pen. And I can only speak for myself, but when you get into a rut like that, you lose the process."
What happens instead?
"You start thinking, 'I need to go seven, I need, I need, I need. I need to get this guy out.' And then you give up an infield chopper and it's, '... Here we go again.' You think you're this close to making a good pitch or you've finally adjusted, and you don't get rewarded.
"When you're going bad, the 2-and-0 heater gets hit out. When you feel good about yourself and you feel sexy and you're out there, the 2-and-0 heater gets popped up to second."
But how can Buchholz feel good about himself?
"You can't," Lester said. "It's all results-oriented. You can't, but you just need to trust in the process. That's what I learned in 2012. Don't get me wrong, I still fall into it because this game is so results-oriented. You feel like, 'When I make this pitch, you should be out. You shouldn't stay on that ball and hit it to right.' I get frustrated with umpires, I get frustrated with stupid hits, I get frustrated giving up homers. But then it has to be, 'OK, what am I doing? What's the next pitch?'"
It is an open question when Clay Buchholz will get the chance to throw his next pitch. It might come Saturday, his scheduled turn. The indications are that it will not.
But when that next pitch does come, Lester hopes Buchholz will see it for what it is: the most important one he will throw, in that moment. Only then can he think about the next one. That's how the confidence is restored, pitch by pitch.
Easy? Not when the whole world seems to be crashing down on your failures. It's brutally hard.