Well, that was fun.
After three months of waiting, accusing and complaining, Boston finally saw its long-lost ace return to the mound. And he was dominant. Even if it was only five innings (final line: three hits, six strikeouts, one walk, zero runs), last night in Tampa, Clay Buchholz gave every indication that he’s healthy and can contribute down the stretch. If he pitches anything like he did last night, “contribute” is an understatement.
This is obviously great news for the Sox. Picking up a healthy Buchholz at this stage of the season — up eight and a half games, with 16 to play — is like Mario stumbling into flower power right before he walks into Koopa’s Castle. And now that Buccholz is back, and the immediate future looks so promising, I have to ask the question:
Can you believe that we’re here?
I don’t know, maybe Clay knew something that we didn’t. In this case, maybe it was a few somethings. That’s why he was so patient and conservative. Why, for two months in the heat of a pennant race, and with the words “OK, I’m ready to pitch” the only thing standing between him and the mound, Buchholz remained quiet, biding his time when no one thought that he (or his team) could afford to.
Maybe he figured: “Eh, we’ll be fine. I’m sure Lackey and Doubront will carry the load. I’m sure Ben can just flip Jose Iglesias straight up for a healthy and motivated Jake Peavy. And how can you worry with Koji in the bullpen? I’ve been saying for years that he’s Cy Young material. He’ll be the most dominant closer in baseball!”
Maybe Clay Buchholz is a witch and should be burned on a stake.
More likely? Buchholz is lucky. Not in a “Hey, you just won the lottery!” kind a way. I mean that he’s fortunate to be on this team. Lucky to be associated with the group that’s spent the last five and half months slowly but surely making baseball fun again in Boston, and refusing to let anything stand between them and defeating the odds.
The truth is that most teams would have floundered without their best pitcher — and that’s after three weeks, never mind three months. Most pitchers would have seen that as a challenge (especially after being cleared by doctors) and spared nothing in the name of getting back on the mound. Buchholz chose to wait. He trusted that this team would keep the train moving, knowing all along that he’d get a brunt of the blame if it derailed. He believed. Whether the Sox were up a few games, or just one game, or even fell back into second place, Buchholz always had his eyes on September, seemingly unwillingly to consider the possibly that the team would let him down.
And his faith was rewarded. The Sox went 49-33 in the 82 games between Buchholz starts. They gained six games in the standings. They not only stayed afloat, they rose further to the top. So much so that Buchholz can now treat the last few weeks of the regular season like an extended spring training instead of throwing himself back into the fire under do-or-die circumstances.
Now it’s time for the payback.
The consensus around the Sox heading into last night’s game was that they didn’t necessarily need Clay Buchholz anymore. The initial belief was that Boston couldn’t survive the season without him. Then, it became that a healthy Buchholz was the only way they’d succeed in the playoffs. But as he took the mound in Tampa, a lot of folks saw him merely as a luxury. That sure, it was nice to have him back, but either way, there was still Lester, Lackey and Peavy. The staff was good enough as it is.
It took five innings for Buchholz to remind everyone that it’s not.
Sure, if by some awful chance, Buchholz wakes up this morning with a sore neck and shuts it down for the season, no one will bury the Red Sox. Right now, they’re standing on the doorstep to Koopa’s Castle, and Buchholz or no, you feel pretty good about their chances making it out in one piece.
But come on, no one turns down flower power. Even if the Sox might be still OK in the worst-case scenario, the best-case scenario has it beat by the length of 1,000 Mike Napoli beards.
It’s the difference between hope and belief with these Red Sox. Between thinking, “OK, they can do this. This is possible . . .” and “Damn right they’re going to do this. They’re the best team in baseball!”
Clay Buchholz is that difference.
He can put this team over the top.
And after all they’ve done for him, that only seems fair.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine
Well, that was fun.