The baseball season provides each team with 162 opportunities to either right wrongs or sink further into the abyss. Each day yields a fresh set of results in need of analysis and dissection, hence why it’s sometimes difficult to locate a specific turning point – the one game or one injury that led to the dynamic being altered.
With the eulogies and excuses in full gear regarding the pitfalls and shortcomings of the 2011 Boston Red Sox – no truth to the rumor that the Farrelly brothers are fast at work on their next project, a sequel to “Fever Pitch” titled “A Stupor of a September” – the time has arrived for fans and sports writers alike to sift through the ashes left behind from this calamitous collapse and try to figure out where it all went wrong.
From this observer’s vantage point, you had a sense trouble was brewing for Boston long before the geese started making plans to head south for the winter. Circle in red and place a rubber stamp on June 16, the last time Clay Buchholz started a game.
In a season in which injuries were commonplace and the team’s overall competitive fire was called into question much too often, not having Buchholz for the final 3½ months was simply a loss too much for the BoSox to overcome. The righthander served as a perfect compliment to rotation mates Jon Lester and Josh Beckett while simultaneously helping to cover up the woefulness that was John Lackey and the little bang for the buck Daisuke Matsuzaka provided.
In short, Buchholz was the perfect No. 3 starter. Save for the Philadelphia Phillies and their quartet of aces, a team in Boston’s position should be able to live off three dependable starting pitchers and hope to receive some sort of contribution on the days Lester, Beckett and Buchholz weren’t scheduled to pitch.
The Red Sox were possessors of the best record in the American League on June 16, their 41-27 mark 1 ½ games better than the Yankees and 5 ½ in front of those no-quit Rays. They had an offense producing at a high clip coupled with three-fifths of a rotation that was solid as the Rock of Gibraltar (Beckett, Lester and Buchholz), one-fifth porous (Lackey) and one-fifth up in the air (whoever was assuming Mazsuzaka’s slot at that particular moment).
You know the script from here on out: Buchholz was out of commission with what was first ruled a back injury later revealed to be a stress fracture. The change in diagnosis doesn’t even begin to explain just how detrimental the loss of Buchholz was to a pitching staff – both starters and relievers – that was on borrowed time just as the season started to spiral completely out of control.
Through 14 starts Buchholz averaged 5.9 innings per start. According to billy-ball.com, American League starters typically provide 6.1 innings. Despite falling under this metric’s definition of average, Buchholz made up for it in other areas (6-3 with a 3.48 ERA at the time of his injury). The Red Sox were also 9-5 in games Buchholz started, a sign that more often than not, the pitcher placed the team in favorable or nearly-favorable conditions by the time he departed for the showers.
Buchholz’s prolonged absence created a rippling effect that stretched from Pawtucket and beyond. The task of replacing his output fell upon a number of highly ineffective replacements who left manager Terry Francona little choice but to dip into his bullpen much too sooner on many a night.
From strictly a rotational standpoint, the Sox went into the summer months with just two reliable starters in Lester and Beckett. Lackey was reliable in the sense that you knew Francona was going to give him an opportunity to redeem himself once every fifth day, knowing full well the idea of placing a pitcher making over $15 million into the bullpen would likely destroy an already fragile ego. Alas, Lackey was lacking in filling the void Buchholz’ barking back created.
Boston gave Andrew Miller 12 starts to see if he could stem the tide, but the lefty only provided 4.9 innings per start. The reality check Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein provided during a preseason interview rang loud and clear in this scribe’s mind every time Miller struggled with his command and failed to get through five innings: “He’s a guy who’s been in the deep weeds for years now. Very few of those guys ever come out of that.”
The Red Sox probably went into the days not started by Lester and Beckett knowing full well that it would probably serve the team’s best interest to have every possible relief option at the ready just in case. As it became clearer that Buchholz as a starter wasn’t going to return, the dynamic of the Sox’ rotation shifted. Instead of being three-fifths full, it was now three-fifths running on fumes.
It was guys like Miller, Lackey, Erik Bedard, rookie Kyle Weiland and Mr. 200 Tim Wakefield who placed an incredible burden on Boston’s relief corps. Instead of entering the game in the sixth or seventh inning, the phone would ring in the fifth with the request that someone needs to get warmed up and fast.
With the bullpen now responsible for covering an additional starter, it shouldn’t come a surprise that the entire unit spent all of September in a state of flux. Matt Albers was the victim of an early-season heavy workload, which explains why he faltered so badly in August. Dan Wheeler was unavailable for the final three weeks of the season due to tightness in his forearm, his prolonged absence leaving Boston little choice but to turn to a 38-year-old journeyman (Trever Miller) and a youngster in Junichi Tazawa who spent this season rounding back into form following Tommy John surgery.
By the time Boston’s collapse was becoming more of a reality, Francona only had three go-to relievers at his disposal in Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. The trio’s usage – Aceves and Bard combined for 23 appearances in September while Papelbon often found himself pitching in non-save situations – represented a final reminder of the domino effect that goes back to Buchholz.
It stands to reason that Buchholz would have made 15 starts post-June 16. Surely those 15 starts would have gone a long way in protecting the bullpen. Instead the Sox were left shorthanded in the pitching department, a quandary that played a major hand in the club’s undoing and ungluing.
Say what you will about the 2011 Red Sox, but the seams to those polyester uniforms started to become undone on June 16. It was the day the Boston Bruins woke up as Stanley Cup champions and a day the Red Sox saw their own championship dreams absorb a serious hit, as the absence of Buchholz proved too great to overcome.