Starter Clay Buchholz made his return to the mound for the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday night, following a month-long absence with a hyperextended right knee. Working into the eighth and earning the winning decision in Boston’s 5-4 victory over the Seattle Mariners, it was a good first start back for the 29-year-old righty, who entered the start with a 7.02 ERA in 10 starts.
Buchholz threw 7.1 innings, allowing four runs on seven hits, walking none and striking out two. Pulled after making one out in the eighth inning, he needed just 76 pitches to get through the Seattle order three times. He threw 55 of those pitches for strikes.
The stuff wasn’t great. It was what you would expect from a pitcher returning from a one-month layoff. The command was a little off, particularly on the fastball. The Mariners made Buchholz pay as well, hitting three home runs off him.
That said, it was easy to see Buchholz had a much better feel for his stuff. His cutter and changeup were falling in. He looked comfortable on the mound. It wasn’t the pitcher who went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 2013, but it was nothing close to the guy who walked eight Atlanta Braves on Memorial Day.
When trying to make sense of Buchholz’s struggles in the wake of that Memorial Day massacre, the common thought that it was all between the ears. It was a notion so pondered over the years that a Psychology of Clay Buchholz course could probably be offered at BU.
That said, Buchholz checked out pretty well Wednesday night in the mental category. The big checkpoint came in the bottom of the second inning. Pitching with a 2-0 lead, Buchholz allowed a home run to Kyle Seager to lead off the inning, followed by a Logan Morrison single followed by another home run, a two run shot by Mike Zunino. “Here we go again,” fans all said collectively.
But Buchholz buckled down, retiring 11 of the next 12 batters he faced. He retired the side in the second inning on six pitches. He needed just 22 pitches to get through the next three innings, throwing eight, five and nine pitches in the third, fourth and fifth innings respectively.
Between the Zunino home run in the second and the Brad Miller bomb to lead off the eighth, a span of 19 batters, Buchholz needed just 55 pitches to make 18 outs, allowing three hits. Only Endy Chavez, who led off the sixth with a base hit to right, reached second base over that stretch.
The indication from Buchholz’s performance is that he’s worked out the post-injury mental kinks, something that happened in 2012 when he posted a 9.09 ERA in his first six starts after a back injury ended his 2011 season. Once he learned to trust his body and trust his stuff, he settled in and pitched like the top-of-the-rotation starter he is, going 8-5 with a 3.08 ERA over his next 21 starts, holding opposing bats to a .234 average.
It appears that a similar script is playing out for Buchholz in 2014. A shoulder injury cost him a good portion of 2013, and his struggles early on in the season appeared to be based on a mental barrier as opposed to a physical one. Based on Wednesday’s start, it looked like that mental barrier was crossed.