We've said it for weeks now: the Red Sox are only going as far as their top-of-the-rotation pitchers take them. We've pointed out that Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are a combined 13-21 this season, and that at least one of those pitchers is going to have to step up and pitch like a No. 1 if he's going to lead this team to a second-half surge.
Maybe we were wrong. Maybe someone else is doing that already. Maybe Clay Buchholz is becoming the long sought-after ace of this pitching staff.
Two years ago, Buchholz gave us a glimpse that he was an ace in the making. He went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA, the second-lowest in the American League. He finished sixth in voting for the AL Cy Young Award that season and was poised to build on that in 2011.
Instead, Buchholz was injured and never pitched again after June 16. When he returned this season he wasn't quite right. He gave up five or more earned runs in each of his first six starts. His ERA was 9.09 after his first start of May.
Then, when he finally started to hit his stride, he was hospitalized with esophagitis. Rumors began to fly — he had swallowed too much tobacco juice, he had lost too much weight, he wouldn't be able to win games.
He hasn't won a game since returning, winless in two starts. But he has been outstanding in each of them. Last Saturday, in his first start off the DL, he allowed just two runs through the first six innings and should’ve been done for the night. Instead he came back out for one more inning –- and left with a pair of runners on base. Both scored, and he took the loss.
On Thursday night at Fenway, he was even better. Buchholz gave up just one run in eight innings, but was on the hook until Cody Ross hit his third three-run homer in 15 innings to walk off with a win. It was the strongest start of the season for Buchholz, who was quick to tip his cap to Chicago rookie Jose Quintana and his eight-inning scoreless start.
"The guy they had out there threw a better game than me," Buchholz said.
That's the kind of accountability you love if you’re a Red Sox fan. And the sort of thing an ace says after a game -– even if he pitched well enough to win.
Buchholz is now 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA in his last seven starts. He has gone at least six innings in each of those seven starts, matching the longest such streak of his career. It was the first time in 10 games he left a game trailing. Those are top-of-the-rotation numbers.
The Sox still need Lester and Beckett to improve. While they figure it out another guy has taken on the role of No. 1 starter. He might have an ERA of 5.19, but since the middle of May, it's been Buchholz who has given the Sox a chance to win every time he's taken the mound.