BOSTON — The Red Sox still sit atop the American League East. But maintaining that piece of prime real estate keeps getting more difficult.
Clay Buchholz, who hasn’t pitched since June 8 because of discomfort in his trapezius muscle (located near the neck), is scheduled to have an MRI on Wednesday. There’s no timetable for Buchholz’s return, but the lingering discomfort he’s experiencing makes it hard to be optimistic about the Red Sox’ starting rotation, especially as Jon Lester continues to struggle.
“What [Buchholz has] meant for us — I don’t know our overall team record — but knowing that he’s 9-0 himself and knowing the number of games we’ve won when he’s been on the mound, his performance was as good as you’re gonna find in baseball for the time that he’s been active,” manager John Farrell said Wednesday. “Top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers when they’re absent are hard to replace. Yet at the same time, we’re still playing pretty darn well as a team, but we have to do what’s right for Clay to get him back not only active but to the level of performance he was operating at before he went down.”
Buchholz threw long toss on flat ground Wednesday as intensely as he did Tuesday — something Farrell considered a positive. But Buchholz felt discomfort after throwing 15-18 pitches off a mound, and the session ended with the right-hander telling Farrell, “It’s not ready.”
“The only way we can address that is until he’s symptom-free, then we’ve got to plan accordingly,” Farrell said when asked if Buchholz’s arm strength could become an issue. “That includes the days missed, what his most recent workload has been and to lay out any plan to work him back to a rehab start.”
Without speculating about Buchholz’s possible return date, it’s fair to think that the Red Sox might be without him for the rest of the first half. As Farrell noted, Buchholz must work his way back to full-game speed, and right now, the right-hander isn’t at a point of normal bullpen activity. That means that the Red Sox must continue to get steady production from both John Lackey and Ryan Dempster, among others.
“What John Lackey continues to do has been not only consistent, but even in the offseason we felt that he was one guy who had a chance to impact our team as much as anyone, and he’s doing that,” Farrell said. “He’s kinda taken on a greater significance as we go deeper into this season by his performance.
“Evident by Ryan [Dempster’s] performance [Tuesday] night, he’s been pretty much what we’ve anticipated,” Farrell continued. “He’s been dependable. We know he’s gonna walk out there for a minimum of six innings, seven innings.”
Lackey and Dempster have certainly been solid for the Red Sox of late. Lackey has six quality starts in his last seven outings, and his 3.03 ERA entering Wednesday’s game is his best mark through his first 12 starts of a season since 2008. Dempster, meanwhile, has had six straight quality starts, and he’s 4-0 in five starts this season when receiving at least four runs of support.
Obviously, the Red Sox are better off with those two veterans pitching up to their potential. But the Red Sox’ biggest need throughout the Buchholz saga is for Lester to get back to being a perennial No. 1 or No. 2 starter. Lester has just one win since May 15, and his ERA has ballooned from 2.72 to 4.57 in that span of seven starts.
Making Lester’s struggles even more difficult to comprehend is that the southpaw appears to be fine physically, and his mechanics seem to be in order. It’s instead been a lack of execution, and that could be looked at in one of two ways by the Red Sox. It could be viewed positively in that he’ll continue to take the mound, battle and perhaps eventually overcome the issues. Or it could be looked at negatively in that a bounce-back isn’t a foregone conclusion. Farrell opted for the positive route when addressing his team’s current state Wednesday.
“I don’t think Jon Lester’s stretch he’s on will continue. He’s too talented of a pitcher,” Farrell said. “I firmly believe and I’m confident that the group that we have here are very capable of keeping us in the position that we are over the next three months.
“At the same time, if you were to ask each guy individually, they know that they have a responsibility to themselves, to us as a team to maintain the pace that we’re on. There’s talent here. There’s no question about it. We’re dealing with a couple of things health-wise with some guys that will come back to us, so this is an ongoing thing. I don’t think any pitcher [or] player is just in a static state that every time they walk on the field is going to be the same. It’s a constant work in progress, and Jon is no different than anyone else.”
If the Red Sox are going to continue succeeding for as long as Buchholz is sidelined, it’ll absolutely need to be a team effort. That means executing in all three facets of the game. The amount of pressure added to Lester and the rest of the pitching staff shouldn’t be overlooked, though. It’s simply what happens when a pitcher of Buchholz’s magnitude is lost.
For now, the Red Sox are still sitting on a slight cushion in the AL East. But the other four teams have pins in hand, ready to deflate that cushion if the Red Sox’ rotation doesn’t step up in Buchholz’s absence.