Before anyone decides to consign Clay Buchholz to the same pitchers' purgatory as John Lackey -- and wouldn't you know it, those two spent a good deal of time hanging out together this spring in Fort Myers -- let's contemplate this.
Yes, Buchholz has given up five or more earned runs in each of his first six starts. That hasn't happened to any Red Sox pitcher in 87 years. The last guy to do so? Red Ruffing. He wound up winning 20 games four times, pitching 22 seasons and getting elected to the Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately for the Red Sox, Ruffing's winning seasons all came after he was traded to the Yankees. But the larger point is that this very rough patch is not yet reason to give up on Buchholz, even though Ruffing's bad streak came when he was a mere lad of 20 while Buchholz turns 28 in August, which is prime-of-his-career territory.
That said, Buchholz is as baffled as you are.
"It's almost like everyone knows what's coming,'' he said while sitting disconsolately in front of his locker Sunday after recording just 11 outs in his shortest start of the season, giving up five runs and three more home runs before leaving with two out in the fourth. "That's what it seems like out there.''
Could he be tipping his pitches?
"I've looked at a lot of video but I'm not seeing anything,'' he said. "Obviously, something is going on -- tipping my pitches, or maybe not throwing the right pitches at the right time.
"I've sort of prided myself on knowing how to pitch the last couple of years and being able to throw pitches in different counts and sometimes fool hitters, but it's not working right now. It's got to change, though. I don't think there's anyone in the history of baseball who's gone through a whole season giving up five runs every start.''
Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, now an Orioles broadcaster, was in the booth when Buchholz pitched a no-hitter against the Orioles in 2007 in only his second big league start. Asked who he was reminded of, Palmer replied: "A young Jim Palmer.''
Palmer was in the booth Sunday when J.J. Hardy took Buchholz deep twice and Robert Andino hit a three-run home run. By the time Palmer was Buchholz's age, he had won 20 games four times. What does he see now?
"I saw a lack of location,'' Palmer said Monday by phone from Baltimore. "I saw 89 [mph] early, and then I saw 93-94 on occasion. The first fastball he threw to Hardy he tried to go in and didn't get in. J.J. Hardy, if you're going to make a mistake, you'd better make it on the outside third of the plate.
"Then he hung a curveball to Hardy on the second home run, but his most grievous mistake was trying to get a fastball in on Andino and missing. You know as well as I do that the Red Sox are not playing at full strength, and as a pitcher you have to stay away from the big innings. If you throw a fastball down and away to Andino and he hits it, maybe it's a single and a run. But you make a mistake with a fastball inside, then it's a three-run home run.
"And it's not as if he doesn't have a good cutter, changeup and curveball. But he pitched to Andino's strength. That's three mistake pitches. That's his outing.''
Palmer returned to his observation that injuries have taken their toll on the Red Sox, especially the absence of Jacoby Ellsbury, whom he called the league's most dynamic player last season. That places an even greater responsibility, he said, on the starting staff.
"Those guys have got to step up, pitch a lot of innings, save the bullpen,'' Palmer said. "They needed a big game from Buchholz, and didn't get it. They all have to step up, because they're not going to have the same offense without Ellsbury, without a healthy [Kevin] Youkilis, assuming he'll be healthy again.''
Buchholz insists he is healthy, that he is not suffering any after effects from last summer's back surgery.
"I feel good,'' he said. "I've just got to find a way to get through this.''
Palmer said that Buchholz's delivery looked fine: "He was very direct to the plate.''
But he doesn't see the same pitcher whom he called the best right-hander in the league just two years ago.
"I don't see the same consistent velocity, the same consistent command,'' he said. "The velocity is what makes his secondary stuff better. Is it health? I don't know. He could be throwing more cutters. He's not struggling with his control, but he's wild in the [strike] zone. His stuff is short right now, at least the consistency of it.''
Buchholz insists it's not a catching issue, and besides, in 2010, his regular catcher was not the retired Jason Varitek, but Victor Martinez. He said he shook off Jarrod Saltalamacchia a couple of times, stepped off then asked the catcher to run through the signs again so he could throw the pitch that Salty had called for initially. "And that worked out,'' he said.
And as Palmer noted, "At the end of the day, whatever Saltalamacchia puts down is just a suggestion. Buchholz is not a rookie. Maybe it makes it a little more difficult when [pitcher and catcher are not on the same page], but that's an easy excuse.''
One thing Buchholz cannot blame is a lack of run support. The Sox have scored six or more runs in five of his six starts, which is why his win-loss record is a deceptive 3-1 despite a hideous 9.09 ERA.
"The way I've been pitching I deserve to be 0-6 right now,'' he said. "I'm lucky not to be that in wins and losses. I've got to do my business. They score runs for me every time, and I keep taxing the bullpen. I gotta figure something out.''
There is time for him to do so, and until Daisuke Matsuzaka comes off his rehab assignment, they have little recourse for the Sox but to keep running him out there.
"I have no plans to change them,'' manager Bobby Valentine said Sunday of his pitchers, adding, "at this time.''