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BOSTON (CBS) — Four years have passed since Clay Buchholz made a playoff start at Fenway Park, and quite a bit has changed since that Sunday afternoon in October 2009.
Back then, Buchholz had only 34 starts at the major league level to his name, and with the Red Sox trailing 2-0 in the ALDS to the Angels, expectations weren’t all that high for Buchholz, who ended up turning in a solid six-inning, three-run performance.
This time around, it’s safe to say that the organization and its fans are expecting a bit more from the now-29-year-old.
The right-hander likely would have been a top contender for the Cy Young Award if a shoulder and neck issue didn’t keep him on the DL for most of the summer, as his 1.74 ERA was far and away the best in the AL among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. Buchholz made his return to postseason pitching last week, but it was on the road in Tampa, where he allowed three runs (all on a home run by Evan Longoria) over seven innings in the team’s only loss of the series.
When he takes the ball Sunday night at Fenway, the challenge will be greater, and so will the pressure to succeed.
“This is what baseball is all about,” Buchholz said when he spoke prior to Game 1. “This is where you want to be.”
And the Red Sox need the best out of Buchholz after taking a 1-0 loss in the series opener. Boston didn’t record a hit until the ninth inning in what was a brutal night at the plate and, of course, an excellent show of pitching from Anibal Sanchez and the Tigers’ bullpen. But the job won’t get easier for them in Game 2.
Because Buchholz’s injury kept him from making enough starts to be in the Cy Young discussion, that award will almost assuredly go to opposing Game 2 starter, Max Scherzer. He went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA for the Tigers this season, but one of those losses came against the Red Sox at Fenway in September. However, don’t let that make you think he may have some doubts creeping in from that performance.
“My confidence level has always been the same from the day I arrived into the big leagues to now,” Scherzer said Saturday. “I believe confidence is a choice, and I always choose I’m going to believe that I’m always going to come out on top. It doesn’t matter if you’re struggling or if you’re on top. You’ve always got to believe that you’re going to have success, and this year I had the same confidence level I had my entire career.”
For Buchholz, it will be a special moment Sunday night, not just for the fact that it’s his first home playoff start in four years, but also for the journey he was taken on by the injury this season.
“That was the tough part about it — this was the first time I’ve ever had to deal with an injury that’s arm‑related,” Buchholz said. “And not knowing how to feel about throwing with discomfort that hasn’t gone away in a span of two or three weeks and not really knowing what to do, not knowing if I’m going to make it worse by throwing … yeah, there was definitely a point where it was right before I went and saw Dr. [James] Andrews that obviously didn’t feel right. And to have felt that going through this whole scenario, it was a little disturbing, just for the reason that I wasn’t feeling any better after the rest that I took a little bit and the throwing program.
“So there was definitely a point when I didn’t know if I was going to be able to be, so to speak, like I was at the beginning of the season.”
Buchholz was able to return to form, allowing just five earned runs over 24 innings in the month of September, and that’s why there’s reason for optimism about his start in Game 2.
“In the starts that he’s made since coming off the DL, there’s still been a little bit of a building component, building his stamina and endurance inside of a given day,” manager John Farrell said. “But the touch and feel to secondary pitches are consistent to pre‑injury. And I think coming out of particularly the last three starts, where we’ve been able to get him over a hundred, 110 pitches on each of those outings, I think he comes away with greater confidence on the physical side of things. I think he’s always been a confident guy in executing a certain pitch or selecting a certain pitch inside of an at‑bat and we’ll need more against this lineup here. This is as good a lineup as we’re probably going to face.”
It’s no doubt as difficult a lineup the Red Sox could face, but Buchholz just may be the toughest starter they’ve seen standing 60 feet, 6 inches away this season. The same can be said for the Red Sox about Scherzer.
This is October, and the American League has been whittled down to the very best of the very best. And it will all be on display Sunday night at Fenway Park.