BOSTON -- For a good portion of the three months Clay Buchholz missed with discomfort in his neck and shoulder, the consternation among Red Sox fans was centered on whether the right-hander would be back in time to help their team in the postseason.
They'd seen what he could be when healthy, they saw the undefeated ledger and the league-low earned run average, and so their primary concern became ensuring that they'd get a chance to see him take his turn in Boston's starting rotation come playoff time. They got their wish, and the Sox won two of Buchholz's three starts en route to the American League pennant.
Yet as the World Series heads to St. Louis, with Buchholz scheduled to pitch Game 4 on Sunday, it's not crazy to think that a reoccurrence of the right-hander's discomfort could actually be a benefit to the Red Sox.
If Buchholz were fully healthy, and at full strength, such an idea would be preposterous. He limited his opponent to three earned runs or fewer in 15 of his 16 regular season starts, no more than one run in half of those appearances.
However, the Clay Buchholz who has pitched for the Red Sox in these playoffs is not fully healthy, finally admitting late Wednesday that he was experiencing some tightness in his throwing shoulder. And he's not at full strength, having missed three months. He lost some of the power that's built up over spring training and the season's early months.
He's not a waste, either, though, so it's still a good thing for the Sox that he's on track to start. "Everything that he's going through right now is indicating that he will start on Sunday," manager John Farrell said. "We fully expect him to go."
They just need to carefully monitor how far he goes, while keeping him more realistically limited in what he's allowed to do — and with the injury matter hovering over the outing, Farrell will automatically be more attuned to those issues and concerns than he might otherwise be.
And if he is pressed into action, the Red Sox may actually be no worse off, considering their alternative matches up well with the opposition, and it gives the manager more freedom and flexibility in a National League ballpark.
In each of his first three starts, Buchholz has begun well. It wasn't until the fifth inning of his Division Series start against Tampa Bay that he got burned by a bad breaking ball to Evan Longoria. Then in the ALCS against Detroit, he allowed a total of one run over the first five innings of two starts before getting burned in the sixth. In those two sixth innings against Tigers he faced nine batters, yielding six hits and a walk, and in both cases he got to about 65-70 pitches and appeared to be out of gas.
So if Farrell can now accept the reality of that limit, rather than try to stretch more out of the pitcher who is supposed to be the 1A to Jon Lester's No. 1 spot on this staff, he can now take no chances.
He can give the ball to Felix Doubront after three, four, maybe five innings — whenever Buchholz begins to approach those troubling thresholds — and in doing so he might make the Cardinals a bit uncomfortable. Doubront is left-handed, and against left-handed pitching the Cardinals batted just .238 during the regular season, ranking 27th of baseball's 30 teams. Their .672 OPS was fifth-worst, and neither of those numbers changed much whether matched with a starter or a reliever.
Doubront personally held lefties to a .247 average and a .648 OPS this season, so he has an arsenal that should play well against those deficiencies, like Lester's did in Game 1, when he threw 8 2/3 scoreless innings, and if Doubront can command the ball he should be able to control the game against the Cardinals. And if he can't, the innings Buchholz eats at the beginning means Farrell could get Doubront out of there quickly. He could try Franklin Morales again if he wanted a lefty, he could go to Ryan Dempster if he feels he needs length, or he could begin matching up as the game moves toward the late innings. He could with no hesitation also take the opportunity to hit for Buchholz, or Doubront, or anyone, if the situation dictates such a decision.
There are plenty of options — and all of them are better than trying to coax something out of Buchholz that simply isn't there. If it were there, none of this would be discussed. Heck, Buchholz probably would've pitched Thursday if he were healthy and strong.
But now that the Red Sox have acknowledged he's something less, the freedom could actually be a benefit.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.