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Still sorting through Clay Buchholz's stuff

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 7, 2013 10:35 AM

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It hardly fits the conventional definition of "stopper,'' but such a designation this morning probably belongs not to Red Sox ace Clay Buchholz, but to shortstop Stephen Drew.

Or perhaps I just see it that way because I am on the record, multiple times to the point of annoyance I am sure, as celebrating the entire Drew family catalog, and it's finally becoming justified.

In the Red Sox' 6-5, 11-inning victory over the Twins Monday night – a win that snapped a mildly concerning three-game losing streak – Drew had four hits, including a tying home run in the seventh and a two-out game-winning RBI double in the 11th.

He's a good player, and Monday night he was at his best when they needed it.

Buchholz? He was not at his best – that's become a rather high standard – though he was hardly dismal. He needed 36 pitches to escape the first inning, assisted by the generous impatience of Twins rookies Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks, who each went down swinging with the bases loaded.

He trailed, 4-1, through five innings, lasted a season-low six innings, but struck out nine batters, including seven of nine at one point. His ERA "skyrocketed" from 1.01 to 1.60.

richardjrfinn57.JPG(Meandering aside: The '68 Bob Gibson-like start by Buchholz this season in terms of earned run average reminded me of an incredibly absurd item of hyperbole from this year's Sports Illustrated baseball preview edition.

In the "Enemy Lines'' section for the Seattle Mariners, here is what a rival scout apparently had to say about pitching prospect Taijuan Walker:

... when Walker gets there -- he's only 20 -- he'll be there to stay. He's Dwight Gooden, Bob Gibson and J.R. Richard all in one.

Gooden, Gibson, and Richard? Like, the sum of them? That's a pretty decent pitcher. It's also a pitcher who cannot possibly exist, and to suggest a very promising 20-year-old kid is anything more than reminiscent of them at the same age is disrespectful to what they became.)

Anyway, back to Buchholz. Last night's effort wasn't a bad start so much as it was a weird start. It wasn't ace-like, that vintage, we're-not-going-to-need-the-bullpen-tonight, I'm-ending-this-losing-streak-myself statement game that Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez were so known for during their respective Red Sox heydays. Or that Taijuan Walker presumably delivers on a regular basis for the Double A Jackson Generals.

It was just OK, a Buchholz performance that felt plucked from last year and shoehorned into this one. They ultimately won, so it was enough technically. But the Red Sox, with a weary, depleted bullpen, were hoping for more than OK. Had he been as spectacular as he had been in essentially each one of his first six starts, it would have been the most convincing piece of evidence yet that the gifted but often enigmatic 28-year-old has legitimately become a true No. 1 starter.

Instead, some questions remain. Or at least that question remains.

Drew may have gotten Buchholz off the hook in Monday's game. But he's hardly off the hook on the accusations that he has been getting creative with the baseball.

Oh, it should be noted that while Buchholz clearly did not begin the game with his best stuff, his repertoire came back to him as the game progressed. Perhaps it was because that crude cynic Jack Morris wasn't around to point it out to our averted eyes, but at no point did Buchholz appear to throw a spitter or his new alleged go-to pitch, the Super-Duper Encarnacion-Foolin'-Bautista-Left-Droolin' Resin Ball.

There were no open containers of Vaseline near the mound, no sandpaper was spied in his glove, no blowtorch, pliers or Mike Scott-endorsed power drills were to be found, and no How-To manuals authored by Gaylord Perry were spotted in his locker. He had his usual mannerisms and quirks and greasy style.

But because he wasn't as dominant as he had been before Morris and fellow ex-pitcher and current Jays broadcaster Dirk Hayhurst separately accused him of doctoring the ball during his seven-inning, two-hit gem against Toronto in his previous start, well, you know how it is. Some doubts will linger until he is similarly dominant again. That might be unfair – even a real-life Gooden/Gibson/Richard hybrid would be hard-pressed to measure up to Buchholz's first six starts – but it's how it is.

If you're looking at this objectively, you do have to give Hayhurst in particular some credence on the matter. In his excellent memoir "Out Of My League,'' Hayhurst writes with humor and insight on the lengths pitchers will go to in order to get a better grip or some extra movement on a pitch. I respect his opinion.

Do I think Buchholz was/is doing something to gain an advantage? I'd probably say no, but It wouldn't surprise me, it sure as hell wouldn't bother me (it's part of baseball's charm), and I'm not just going to dismiss it out of hand like some have done around here.

I like Joe Castiglione a lot, but he must have acquitted Buchholz a half-dozen times before the first pitch was thrown last night. Meanwhile, Gary Tanguay was wondering, on May 6, whether this will affect the MVP voting. Sigh.

And whether he is or isn't doctoring the baseball, a real advantage can be gained if he can somehow use the perception that he is to his advantage. If he can get the hitters thinking about what he's doing before the pitch, perhaps they'll lose focus on the pitch itself.

Buchholz has always had elite stuff, but his two-seamer has been downright exceptional this season. Maybe he has found a way to get a better grip or movement on it than he had before. Or maybe, having arrived in his prime, he's just better than he was before. I'm willing to consider either possibility.

His next start is Saturday against the Blue Jays. We already know what they think. I'll have a clearer sense of what I believe after that one is complete.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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